Monthly Archives: May 2017

Combodying Gaia’s Body

The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my reactions. My partner and I were conferring, as she drove into the traffic on the freeway. We were going back home to the mountains, from the doctor’s surgery.

She asked me how I was with the fact that my life was in danger. I felt inwardly, and I found there a feeling of tenderness. When I sat with it, it showed itself as a feeling for the whole world.  I knew (in there) that my world-wide social body was in much more trouble than my physical body was; and that my biospheric body was in a lot more trouble than my one little prostate could be. And, that my energy body was relatively peaceful. I was okay.

To come to terms with death, I live as fully as possible in my bodies – the most accessible 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 which I am? Is it knowable, except as ‘this moment’s experiencing’? Discovering my tendency to ignore my mind, while lost ought night and day, I decided in the mid-nineties to more assiduously follow my breathing. And that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. That single commitment brought my body more fully into the centre of my practice.

If I am with my breath, then I know I am present, because the body is always present. From there 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 this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

Grounding myself in the flow of ‘body-as-experienced’ –  sensing into its condition in all conditions – helps me realize what the Japanese psychotherapist and Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. My OED says of ‘com-‘: “The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.”Em-bodying‘ means to put something into the body, from outside it.

The way that I think of it is, that any body includes all which is not that body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its participation right now in the Earth’s water cycle, carbon cycle, and 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. (Later, we’ll address the duality that appears to be inherent in this instruction.)

This, with many more aspects (including the social), is, to me, combodiment. 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, is a bodily being-together-with-all.

What makes death such a big deal, then? Is it not our clinging to patterns of experiencing, which are of thought. Yet, these very thoughts are mean to be aiding the body to carry forward in its life; and, they are always of the body. Out of the clinging we create our ‘personality’; centred not in process, but in the body being owned by a strictly-bounded ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ (More on this, later.) 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.’ Whatever the body – gross, emotional, or subtle – they are 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’ reveals the body at ever more subtle levels. Knowing myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. At the gross level, this body deteriorates and stops functioning. From the subtlest perspective, though, all that is going on is that the universe is continuing its creative dance of collecting, extending, dissolving, and creatively varying itself. So, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?

Mindfulness of the Body and the Deathless

The Deathless

Translated from the Anguttara Nikaya; from the Book of the Ones, by Christopher J. Ash

“Practitioners, one does not enjoy the deathless who doesn’t enjoy mindfulness directed to the body. One enjoys the deathless who enjoys mindfulness directed to the body. The deathless has been enjoyed, by those who have enjoyed mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one has fallen away from the deathless who has fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t fallen away from the deathless who hasn’t fallen away from mindfulness directed to the body. One has neglected the deathless who has neglected mindfulness directed to the body. One is bent on the deathless who is bent on mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one is heedless about the deathless who is heedless about mindfulness directed to the body. One is heedful of the deathless who is heedful of mindfulness directed to the body. One has forgotten the deathless who has forgotten mindfulness directed to the body. One hasn’t forgotten the deathless who hasn’t forgotten mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up the deathless who hasn’t resorted to, developed and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body. One has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up the deathless who has resorted to, developed, and seriously taken up mindfulness directed to the body.

“Practitioners, one hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who hasn’t recognized, fully comprehended, and realised mindfulness directed to the body. One has recognized, fully comprehended, and realised the deathless who has recognized, fully comprehended and realised mindfulness directed to the body.”

Turning Toward the Body, Turning Toward the Deathless

“(A Year to Live) is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness. It is an opportunity to resolve our denial of death as well as our denial of life in a year-long experiment in healing, joy, and revitalization.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

Some people express a fear that thinking and journaling about death might invite death – physical death. That is one fear that will arise in this practice, but the primary purpose of this practice is to turn toward what we fear; to explore, feel, think, sense into, and know one’s actual relationship to this kind of life – the  life of fear –  as well as death. We help others when we help ourselves in this way, too.

One way to work with the fear of facing mortality is to keep grounded in our life as actually lived; that is, to know yourself intimately in all your daily, bodily-based changes. That’s why, in this work, I place an emphasis on mindfulness of the body; and knowing the body in the body – not simply as a concept.

“Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have to inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

So, during the practice of A Year to Live, we can clarify the Buddha’s term ‘the deathless.’ It came to me forcefully several years back, with a radical clarity, that “There is no death.” I then undertook a period of review, to be sure that I was seeing right, which has included checking with accomplished Buddhist teachers. I wish to demonstrate this radical claim to you, during this project.

My understanding of the body is the other most radical shift in thinking during this inquiry. To dwell in the body intimately and fully only happens after a thorough training; because, this ‘dwelling’ not just about being in contact with bodily sensations and actions – the organism has much subtler dimensions than these surface processes.

Because the body is a local representative of true nature – it is the intelligence of the universe manifesting in specific ways, gross and subtle – we can resolve the question of who or what dies by knowing ourselves directly. And so, for me, the enquiry naturally deepens into an understanding of human nature as being more about ‘process’ than about ‘content.’ It’s more about how we are in the world, how we interact, and less about ‘what’ we are.

While I glimpsed, forty years ago, that I could say rightly, “I am not my body,” on the other hand, it is also the case, and is helpful to realize, “I am only my body.” This is not the body of modern medicine – a constructed thing, or a machine. The body is a way of knowing.

This experience-near, process-oriented way to think of ‘selfhood’ naturally leads to a different understanding of death. When we able to see the real issue in ‘death’ as the loss of our identifications with self-images, then this changes what is important about death and being human. We then know what matters about living.

The Deathless turns out to be surprisingly near; nearer than your breath.

The Implicit Person

Those who go by names and concepts,
who abide in names and concepts,
by not discerning the naming-process,
they are under the yoke of death.
Having fully understood the naming-process,
one doesn’t conceive of one who names.
For, there is nothing (findable)
whereof one would say that ‘she’ or ‘he’ exists.
Samiddhi Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya (translated by Christopher J. Ash)

To understand ‘death’ correctly, we need to understand the role of language-use in our ‘mind-ing; that is, in shaping our experience of ‘mind.’ That’s an odd thing to say, I suppose – language and mind are intertwined. Hence, the issue is often not the death of our organism, in itself, which causes pain; but the ideas associated with that fact.
To put it another way, there is the kind of pain that comes with the actuality of death (for example, separation from loved ones), and there is the other kind of pain which is our reactivity. This second type is usually  not distinguished (in the untrained person) from the first; hence, there is much self-created pain about death.
We have two points: the fact of death, and our resistance to the fact of death. And, this resistance is tied up with imagining a particular status to our ‘I.’ That’s why, when writing about the five-year-old who cried “I don’t want to die,” I said: “Conceiving he would die, he conceived the cessation of his ‘I.’” Can you see how conceiving of ourselves, our fear of death, and language-use are intimately related?
So, we need to learn how we refer to ourselves. We have to see how language shapes personal experience. We’ll go into this, in depth, during this project; and, mindfulness of the body will be central to this exploration, because it grounds us in a reality greater than our conceptions (and our conceits).
There is a stream of spiritual practice that dismisses the personal dimension of our experience. My own path has been very much a path of understanding individuality, and including it in my understanding of what is going on here in the bigger life process. In the mid-seventies, due to unsupervised meditation practice, I had a dramatic loss of self – a form of depersonalization – and so over a long period of inquiry, I had to reclaim my ‘sense of self.’ The work of Eugene T. Gendlin – his Focusing method, and his Philosophy of the Implicit – helped in that reclamation.
There is a personal dimension which we needn’t deny in the realization of the ‘spiritual’ realities of life. The core thing was for me to realize that there is a valid dimension to experience which is indicated by the pronoun ‘I.’ And, this ‘I’ can be experienced all the way through to the impersonal dimension (for example, in what Jesus said in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”)
The issue was well expressed by A.H. Almaas (Hameed), founder of the Diamond Approach, in a conversation with the spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. I’d like, at the beginning of this project, for you to consider what Hameed says, because it addresses an important issue present at the intersection of modern psychology and mindfulness practice. Understanding this is an important corrective to the nihilist (mis-)application of Buddhist philosophy. It is also relevant to the understanding of death presented in this project, as will be clear later.

The facilitator of the conversation,owner and founder of Sounds True Tami Simon said to Hameed:
“… ‘in your own two shoes’  – stand in your own two shoes [you say]. But to begin, Hameed, tell us what you mean by this, this idea of ‘personalness,’ and how it fits into the Diamond Approach. And I know that this is a deep topic, and I’d love it if you would take your time, and really unpack it for us, from your perspective.”
Hameed answered: “I think it is one of those really mysterious things, and which I explored for years… which is, the fact that we are all…   I am… the Infinite, or the true nature, or the totality of Being. To know that, the individual consciousness is necessary. Total Being, Reality, cannot know itself, except through a human being, through a being.
So, for me, at the beginning – before we wake up to the fact that we are more than just an individual consciousness, that we are something very subtle, very profound and fundamental –  the individual consciousness is always present. … In fact there is no experience, no perception, nothing happens without individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is like the organ of experience.
So, at the beginning, basically what we do is that we not only identify with the individual consciousness, but we believe that individual consciousness is a separate entity. And, believing and identifying with the individual as a separate entity becomes what we call the ‘self,’ the ego self, which become quite an impediment and a lot of suffering, because fundamentally that’s not true –  simply, it’s a delusion.
So, as we wake up and realize, ‘No, I am not really a separate entity, and not a separate self; I am something that is nothing… that is everything… that is the nature of everything…’, that experience is still… (even though, in that experience of unity or transcendence, there is no hint of an individual, no hint of individual consciousness; because I’m feeling the happiness of Being itself – formlessness, no shape, no color, nothing) …this realisation is still using the capacities of the individual consciousness to know, to perceive.
So individual conscious… what happens here, it simply becomes implicit, instead of manifesting as an individual. … It disappears, in the sense that it is not in view… (And I’ve had many experiences of the individual consciousness actually dying, ceasing, coming to completely disappearing – nothing – all the way to complete coma. It’s gone. And then, when I come back, as the unity of Being. And that took me a long time, actually (several years!), to finally find that even though I am the unity of Being, I cannot neglect the individual consciousness, because the individual consciousness is the conduit through which all realizations happen.”
In this my present study, what Hameed is calling ‘individual consciousness’ will be equated with ‘body-environment’ interaction (Eugene Gendlin’s ‘body-en’). This approach gives us a way to feel into experience in a very grounded way, so avoiding the possibility of ‘depersonalization.’

Dialoguing with the Textual Traditions – 2

A person should not give himself away. He should not relinquish himself.”  – The Nikāya Buddha, in the Devasamyutta section, of the Samyutta Nikāya

Given all this, I have decided to dialogue with the texts, and not place my greatest reliance on some supposed historical Buddha. So, when I am saying where I learned something, then I will refer to the Nikāya Buddha, the Lankavatara Buddha, the Diamond Sutra Buddha, the Surangama Buddha, and so on; and my reader will not be confused about my Buddha, at that moment. My relationship with the Nikāya Buddha has spanned all my Buddhist life; it’s my favourite textual territory. Yet, in the early seventies, I learned a lot from my dialogue with the Lankavatara Buddha. And in the mid-seventies I learned a lot from the Surangama Buddha and the Diamond Sutra Buddha.

One reason why I chose this way of speaking, apart from the problems outlined earlier, is that I noticed that I would use the phrase “Buddha said…” to claim legitimacy for my views, whether the view was soundly based in experience or not. I’d use the name ‘Buddha’ to bolster my arguments. This is a kind of seduction, and so, upon discovering this, I abandoned the practice. And, I see other teachers arguing (sometimes fiercely) about what the Buddha said, as though they could know.

(By the way, in case you don’t know: ‘Buddha’ is a descriptive term, applied to a class of beings. It is not a proper name. What does it describe, then?

In the Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha says he is not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor is he a man. After perusing the etymology given in the Pāli-English Dictionary, I’ll accept ‘awakened’ as a reasonable translation.

Gotama was one in a line of Buddhas. By the end of this project, we might have a clearer idea of what this means, but for a start,: ‘not a god (deva), nor any kind of heavenly being, nor a man’ means he or she realizes that they are inconceivable. More on this later.

Whose victory cannot be undone, a victory not worldly:
by what path could one ruin an awakened one,
whose field is trackless, immeasurable
.
Dhammapada, verse 179. Translated by Christopher J. Ash)

So, back to our topic: Instead of saying ‘Buddha said…,’ I might say: “This is how I’ve understood the teachings; and, these are the set of texts which I hold up against my experience, to see if they can carry forward my life. In such-and-such a text, the Nikāya Buddha says…” I dialogue with the texts, and don’t claim to know what the historical Buddha said, thought or taught. That would not be a legitimate way to speak.

One further issue is whether one’s experience validates the texts, or the texts validate one’s experience. I would say it is ultimately the former. In respect of the latter, the texts may agree with my experience, or they question my experience (which I can be grateful for). And, they can only validate experience if I bestow some authority on them, which I can’t prove they have – except by appeal to bodily-grounded experiencing.

I think that would be an abdication of human responsibility, to grant the textual tradition the power to judge one’s experience. Nevertheless, my learner’s move is to grant them a provisional authority, and see in what direction my experiences change with that gesture. That’s why I talk, mostly, about the Nikāya Buddha, because I mainly use those texts to do this. They have proven to be profound guides.

My original blog morphed along the way, to become a dialogue with the earliest Nikāya Buddhist teachings on death. It seems that these texts are as close as we can get to the earliest Buddhist teachings (when augmented by similar texts in Chinese, called the Agamas). I began, part-way along in this project, to approached the Nikāyas with the questions: What did the Nikāya Buddha teach about death and dying? Was it of any interest to him, to live with full consciousness of death? Did he suggest some kind of preparation? And, as well – but, incidentally – I asked: What of the rebirth issue (a topic which brings controversy in modern Western Buddhism)?

(For this edited version of the original blog, for coherence, I bring in the theme of the Nikāya Buddha’s approach somewhat earlier than I did in 2015-16.)

Dialoguing with the Textual Tradition – 1

“With death, people lose/ What they conceive as “mine.”/ Knowing this, a sage should not/ Be selfishly devoted to what is “mine.”
Sutta Nipāta, verse 806. Translated by Gil Fronsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings (p. 64). Shambhala.

With my publication of the term ‘Nikāya Buddha,’ a reader asked me why I say that and not just ‘Buddha’? I thank that practitioner for being the occasion of this helpful digression. Why don’t I just say, “the Buddha said (or did, or thought)…,” or “the historical Buddha said (did/thought)…,” and so on, like other people? What does this expression “Nikāya” mean?

In what follows, I’ll try not to be too technical, and my account is not meant to be at all representative of scholarly views. It simply gives a rough sketch of what a practitioner is up against, if they begin to think about the way the phrase “Buddha said” works in us.  As experiential inquirers, how we relate to this phrase changes how we experience the texts. So, I’m not just making a mere scholarly point.

‘Nikāyas’ refers to five Buddhist volumes which were written down in the Pāli language. These are an important part of the very earliest texts, because they purport to contain the ‘discourses of the Buddha.’ (And, my Dhammapada translations, which I use frequently throughout this project, I translate from one of these Nikāyas, the Kuddhaka.)

The Nikāyas are claimed to contain the core teachings attributed to an historical person. His name was Siddhartha; and his clan name was Gotama. In the Nikāyas he’s usually referred to by his clan name, Gotama. He is said to have lived (roughly) in the fifth century BCE (before the common era; or, BC in the old terminology).

The period in which he is said to have lived was an oral culture, though; and these Nikāyas were passed on orally for several generations after his death. So, that’s several centuries before they were put into written form, probably at some time in the first century CE (common era; old ‘AD’). They’ve come down to us in an Indian language now called ‘Pāli,’ which is an offshoot from Sanskrit.

Most Western Buddhists are used to reading and hearing ‘The Buddha said…,” as though the writer or speaker is backed by the experiential authority of an historical person; but this can never be the verified. ‘The Buddha said’ can represent all kinds of reference points.

Firstly, although scholars use the phrase ‘historical Buddha,’ no-one can actually know if there was an historical figure corresponding to the man portrayed in the Nikāyas. It’s reasonable to assume this powerful and perceptive teaching arose because there was a particular individual, in a particular historical milieu, but we have only the Nikāyas themselves as evidence for this (and the Chinese Agamas, which are similar); and, furthermore, as I said, they didn’t come into existence (as written texts) until some time in the first century CE.

(By the way, it is thought by some scholars that – contrary to popular expectation – oral traditions do well in preserving these kinds of ‘texts.’)

Anyhow, we have no way of knowing for certain that the early Nikāya texts faithfully represent the teachings of an historical person. Again, it’s very likely that they do, or that they at least get in the ballpark of certain features of the supposed original teachings; particularly, regarding the core matters such as: the ‘three characteristics of phenomena,’ the certainty of liberation (i.e. the deathless or nibbāna), the ennobling realities (though, even this teaching has been challenged by scholarship, in recent times).

Then, secondly, to complicate the matter further, there are modern Buddhist cultures where the monks and nuns have never read the Pali Nikāyas at all, having been trained using texts written hundreds of years later, in Sanskrit . That is, later Indian and Tibetan traditions have their own version of ‘Buddha said,’ while referring to texts written much later than the (assumed) historical Buddha. These speakers seem to genuinely believe that the ‘Buddha’ said their favourite teachings, despite the gap of centuries between the time of ‘Gotama’ and these particular texts. These later texts – later Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese texts – according to the conventions of those cultures, put their teachings into the mouth of ‘Buddha.’

Consequently, the range of “Buddha said” is amplified greatly beyond what would be possible if we restricted ourselves to the era in Indian history when the Buddha (if he existed) was born (as I said, probably fifth century BCE).

So, as far as I see it, then, it’s more  helpful to specify the particular ‘Buddha’ to which I’m referring. For instance: the Nikāya Buddha, speaking from the 5th century BCE; or, the Lankavatara Buddha, speaking from the late 4th century CE. The Diamond Sutra is difficult to place, so let’s say that the Diamond Sutra Buddha is speaking from some time between the the Nikāyas and the Lankavatara Sutra.

And, there are more – the Uttaratantra Buddha, and the (likely Chinese) Surangama Sutra Buddha, for example. These are both obviously much later than the Buddha of the Nikāyas (who is also called the Shakyamuni Buddha, placing him in a particular kingdom of fifth-century India).

So, when I say, “Nikāya Buddha,” its that layer of textual history to which I’m referring, and to the Pāli texts (Suttas) in particular. And, of course, it’s my interpretation (and sometimes, my translation) of the Pāli texts. I only claim to place myself within, to dialogue with, and to invetigate my experience using, a tradition (and this not exclusively), rather than claim to speak for ‘the Buddha.’

The Matrix of Mystery

“(T)he thought of death is… a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me.” – Herbert Guenther.

I want to share some of the gift that contemplating death brings. Here’s how I experience something that seems to resonate with what Guenther wrote, in this passage.

I can be sitting at a my computer, I can be in a cafe, I can be driving my car, or talking to my partner – and a pristine, all-encompassing space opens. The thought of death can bring this opening. The certainty of my death, or the uncertainty about ‘when, where or how’ I will die – or, likewise, the thought of the certainty of the death of my loved ones – these contemplations can bring such openings. These ideas are one kind of “powerful stimulus.”

With the opening of that ‘space,’ my positioned (and positioning) ‘self’ dies, just like that. Dissolves. If I rest into the ‘gap,’ it is another dimension of being. A knowing is purely present, without any seeking or orienting. Acquisitions have ceased. I’m simply aware of the quality of openness itself, with its measureless ‘ing-ing’ (Gendlin’s expression). And, if I don’t scramble – that is, if I don’t make boundlessness a problem – if I relax and trust it, sigh into this unknowing knowing, then there is a meaningfulness that exceeds any of the phrases about it.

(We’ll look later at the designations in this. The ‘self’ dissolves’; so who is resting into the gap? What do ‘I,’ ‘self,’ ‘person,’ and so on, mean? It’s about the process of designation and it’s relationship to experiencing. Well explore it, later.)

Now, Guenther’s “…brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for…” is sweet, because the boundless, empty, still (paradoxical) presence is full of the magic of living. It’s called ‘ordinary mind.’ And this magic unfolds. Hence: “…the importance of this very moment…”

With this invisible matrix informing them, concepts can return, or function, to be a part of the unfolding, a servant of the bigger life, which is full of meaningfulness. This is a matter of ‘not two.’ It’s not about something on one side called the conceptual present which is different from the still, luminous, non-conceptual openness\on the other side. Not at all. The stillness doesn’t reject concepts, and concepts can serve the still field of possibilities.

This won’t make sense right now, but we’ll explore later: how the unfolding happenings (’time’) are never outside (or, never leave) the implicit, the invisible (timeless) womb of reality. (They never fully form, either, into ‘somethings’. In a sense we are experiencing virtual reality, already.) This will make sense of the Buddhist idea of ‘the Deathless’.

But, I’m getting ahead of our content. Returning to Guenther:

“…the real possibilities that are still before me.” So, this moment, purely present as it is, is full of possibilities, unfolding, “out of” this implicate matrix. It’s a poor metaphor, given what I’ve said about ‘not two,’ but refer back to your present, undivided momentary experience, and you’ll get a ‘feel’ for this. This ‘matrix’ concept is difficult to experience directly at first. Just get a holistic feel of it, be experiential about it, and in time it’ll gel. It will be integral to understanding how the Nikāya Buddha can say, “The attentive do not die.”

This no-inside/outside, always-happening unfolding includes the person who is aware, who is “the unique occasion” for the bigger life’s unfolding possibilities. What magic is that! I’m sometimes drunk on the wonder of it. It makes me laugh, and it calls Rumi to mind: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.” (Coleman Barks trans.)

Gratitude to Stephen

My first audiodharma teaching from any Buddhist teacher at all was from a workshop of Stephen’s. I heard it forty years ago on a set of cassette tapes. Stephen was supporting people who were confronting death, and people suffering grief and loss.

There were people who were living with terminal diagnoses; and, people grieving the loss of loved ones. There were people supporting those who had such a diagnoses; or who were in pain about their loved one’s diagnosis.

I could hear his compassion and his courage. His solicitous voice is still in my memory. His teachings penetrated my armour. He brought me to tears. Even though I wasn’t faced, at that time, with a life-threatening situation, even so, he brought me home to my own battered heart.

I, too, was one intensely in need of healing – of wounds of which I was at this stage barely aware. So, Stephen’s voice on those tapes held me, too. Even the silent, witnessing presence in those workshops of his wife Ondrea was a support.

On those tapes I heard him supporting people to stay for ‘what is’; to stay for their pain – their physical, mental, emotional distress. It was a revelation to me, to think that turning toward such unbearable pain, would be freeing.

He encouraged us to have faith in the more that we are, to have faith in what holds us from within; even as we hold others in the human pains of sickness, mental affliction, old age and death. Over the years thereafter I used his meditations (published in several books) for my own contemplation, and to guide others in theirs.

(Also, I credit the wisdom which I manage to bring to my marriage to the fact that I read his Embracing the Beloved. I believe it contributed to my finally being able to turn toward the suffering of intimate relationship, to stay and learn the lessons which marriage can teach; particularly, to embrace meeting my narcissism. “Narcissus,” he wrote, “is the perfect analogy for the imagined self that each brings painfully to relationship.”)

Decades later I still regularly “soften the belly,” as he used to advise. There’s hardly a month go by, without I encourage another to invite “a soft belly.” I still touch “a heart big enough to hold it all,” in the ways he taught.

Then, in 1999, I began using his book A Year to Live. So, a practice of getting ready for the inevitable. The book gives us guidelines for a year-long practice of bringing death into our lives – of squarely facing mortality, of taking it to heart.

I did my first ‘Year to Live’ throughout 1999, and ‘died’ as the year 2000 rang in. Allowing for a ‘’year off’ here and there (as if one could have a year off from death!) I’ve practiced it for at least twelve of the last eighteen years.

Stephen Levine, teacher, visionary and healer, died, with family around him, in his home in New Mexico, U.S.A, on 17th January, 2016. Thank you, Stephen. May all the Stephen elements in the universe, and those elements in all of us, flourish in wisdom and love.

Don’t Think About It

Caring attention is the deathless; inattention is death.
The attentive do not die; the inattentive are as though dead.
Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

I heard recently of a five-year-old crying in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” Conceiving he would die, he conceived the cessation of his ‘I.’ In another instance, I saw a video of five-year-old, inconsolable because she realizes that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; going to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she keens. By conceiving of a yet-to-come, she anguishes over the loss of what-is. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute,” she cries. It’s unthinkably painful – he won’t stay the way he is. Then she takes it further. Through her tears, she laments: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!”

These two instances got me thinking about other occasions when I’ve heard of children expressing that particular anguish. Most of us in the West (if not all) have a disowned child in us just like that, a child who once lamented, aloud or inwardly: “I don’t want to die.” If, as children, we spoke it out loud, the adults around us didn’t know what to say and likely only feed us the usual, meaningless, placatory cover-ups.

After all, they had not come to terms with the inevitable fact of death, either; so how could they have helped? They were uncomfortable in their lack of capacity to answer us. At best, due to their love, they touched into a pool of pain, helplessly witnessing the anguish of our innocence. Perhaps they treated our existential dilemma as cute (and videoed it). The little girl in the video – her father dismissed the experience, saying that she had a breakdown. My point is, the fact of death is not usually explored carefully, nor acknowledged openly.

  All in all, adult fear of the subject aids children to create disowned parts of themselves. They get on with growing up, and learn to hide the inconsolable lament away. In our culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matters of death, separation and loss. We avoid encountering the natural realization that death separates us from what is ever, ever so dear to us.

Edna St. Vincent Millay names the suppression of existential anguish. The middle section of her poem, Childhood is the Kingdom where Nobody Dies has the following lines. After acknowledging that cats die, she 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.

It’s unthinkable – but, what kind of ‘unthinkable’ is that? How big will we let the unthinkable be in us? How come we aren’t talking to each other about this, now that we’re grown? 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?”) “The attentive do not die.” What did the Nikāya Buddha mean?

How come we aren’t rushing with open arms toward the exploration of consciousness, that incredible unfathomable presence of knowing which resides in the human heart? Are we afraid of a meltdown? What will melt down, break down, or otherwise dissolve?

Why aren’t we exploring these questions? One answer is simply: the sheer momentum from years of turning the other way. “Don’t think about unthinkable things” is a rule. We humans are amazingly adept at compartmentalizing, so the unresolved encounters with the big questions get walled off (the dynamics of which walling-off, I’ll go into later). So, my point here is that childhood training helps the  broader society’s ‘Don’t-Think-the-Unsayable’ project.

So, publication of Stephen’s A Year to Live was a brave counter-cultural service. By opening up the conversation, by bringing the hidden to light, we can increase the richness of our ordinary daily experience. If we have cultivated the habit of inattention, how can we be grateful for and nurture the good in us, in a grounded way?

I don’t think that the little girl in the video had a breakdown, at all. I think it perfectly healthy that she spoke her heart out clear as day (and night): “I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!” Maybe, if those feelings could be received deeply by those around her, and flow through her, then, ten, twenty or thirty years later, she could settle down to the life-expanding koan: ‘Who dies?’

Speaking with the Dead

Today I will visit a ‘place’ established by my sisters to remember our mother. They placed her ashes there. It’s mothers’ day. I’m glad to be going. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve visited this place, or made space for it.

What is a place, I wonder? What’s the relationship of a ‘place’ to the kind of ‘space’ which is our ‘experiential world’? And, how does memory work?

I read this morning about a white settler whose husband died. She sold the farm and moved away (maybe back to England); but not before she relocated her husband’s grave to a tree somewhere off the farm. I thought that was sensible. She made sure it wasn’t on any one individual’s property. She couldn’t control its future, but she gave it the best chance of carrying on.

The tree was a ‘place’ that held memories for her, because long before, when her husband had arrived penniless in the area, unable to afford board anywhere, he had lived in the trunk of that tree for five years. Rabbi Rudy Brash includes the story in his Permanent Addresses, which is a book about people’s graves. The man went on to create a farm, and have a large family.

Why do we have graves? I wonder. How does memory work? Isn’t the body the memory of what’s been? Isn’t it the carrying forward of what has been? Or do we have these places to remind us of other ‘spaces’? Without the acknowledgment of ‘other’s spaces’ ours would be a narcissistic bubble. We create these places to carry forward our spaces into more of life.

Many people use graves to speak to the dead. With such an interaction, do we take a place into our space (our living), absorbing its fresh meanings (fresh because this is ‘now’) into our being? A lot of healing happens this way. 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 one day, a couple of years ago, led me to reflect on how I’m treating my parents, who have both died. That’s an odd concept to many, no doubt.

“How are you treating your parents?”
“What do you mean? They’re dead?”
“When you say that, what do you want that word ‘dead’ to mean?”

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 collective parents – and they do this every year. I imagine one function of the day is to remind themselves that: I am subject to old age. I am not exempt from old age. I am subject to illness. I am not exempt from illness. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. They are my matrix, I am related through them, they are my mediator. I become the heir of whatever actions I do, good or bad.

I got to thinking that, while I do often think about my parents’ deaths – each of which had its own story, its own character – on the other hand, I don’t commemorate their death, in the sense of make a special time of remembrance. I think of each of them, from time to time, and I think about the manner of their deaths, and I think about their inner growth up to and into that moment of death; but nothing ritualised.

I resolved after that dream, and after witnessing the Sri Lankans that day, to explore what more there could be in my relationship with the dead. To be at peace when it’s my turn, I might need to speak with them now more intimately than random musings allow. If I only had a year to live, wouldn’t I follow this thread? “Yes.” Then, okay.

So, thanks to the dream and an unexpected invitation to a meal at the local Vihara on day, I started to explore ritually inviting remembrance, a conscious process. I took the first step: I recorded the dates of my parent’s deaths in my diary.

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. It was by my sisters’ suggestion that we are visiting my mother’s place in the cemetery today, and it felt right.

These dates become an opportunity to be in touch with the ‘more’ of life. I’ll check in ‘with the middle of me,’ today, to see what comes there. I imagine it can be, at the very least, a day of gratitude, and an opportunity to be feel the preciousness of a human life – and maybe it’ll be painful, but… that’s welcome, too. It’s included in all this. There’s space for it.

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