The questions that follow [in Visions of Knowledge] advocate no particular view. Their assumptions are open to being challenged; their conclusions should be considered provisional. If we ask in ways that are incisive and clear, our questions do not have to lead to answers. In asking openly, we create support for knowledge, and then our inquiry cannot fail.” – Tarthang Tulku, Visions of Knowledge
Openness is a kind of knowing upon which our inquiry can depend. Indeed, openness intrinsically has a fine quality of inquiry. And, the need for openness is applicable, too, when we make statements (as distinct from questions, mentioned in this quote). If we are dwelling openly, our statements – negative or affirmative – can act as prompts for further inquiry; even if that inquiry is only the act of appreciation. Open interchange carries a conversation forward (as the combination of ‘inter-’ and ‘change’ implies).
As a writer of Dharma, I dance between saying what I know to be so and the openness that in itself is not sayable. Although the openness is always present, I have to zig-zag. I am mindful of not turning the saying into some kind of fixed knowledge – which is to create fictions in the service of my self-image. The awareness that this living is open by nature, helps me avoid being dogmatic. (Sometimes I hear the student come into my voice, and I know to pause.)
The dilemma of such knowing is nicely put by the Nikāya Buddha (in the Kālakarāma Sutta): “All the things that people and gods know, I know too. But I don’t conceive of any thing in or behind what is experienced.” (Don’t quote it. This is a summary for our specific purpose; yet, the gist is accurate.) He follows this up with: “This snag I beheld, long ago, upon which humankind is hooked, is impaled, which is: ‘I know, I see, ‘tis truly so.’” How will we live, in ordinary situations, and not be run by our opinions, beliefs, principles, or tenets; that is, by our ‘dogmas’?
If such a radical change of heart is to be optimally secured in humanity – safely come upon, and yet remain fresh in its transformative freedom – whatever is claimed to be ‘true’ or ‘known’ can’t be imposed from without; not by gods, nor culture. For such a change to be a “turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Lankavatara Sutra), it has to come from directly knowing our experience.
When our senses are not grasped at – and we thoroughly let them be in their own reach and range – there’s a fundamental revolution in knowing, where even to speak of separate senses is not correct. This realization is the fruit of openness. Openness is the way and the fruit. Clearly, this kind of self-knowledge is radically intimate. It’s an open connection to a basic quality of life which is ‘already-always’ available.
(By the way, while reading “seat of consciousness,” how did you register the word ‘seat,’ in yourself, as you read? Did you vaguely imagine it as something static, fixed, or located; as somewhat thing-ish? A solid base? That would be natural, wouldn’t it, to give it spaciality? However, we want to leave such terms open to a process-use, which won’t establish any such ‘seat’ as actually findable. The word ‘seat,’ here, has to mean something active – even vividly living – right? Let’s not freeze the image; because, it points to experience.)
So, what exactly are we directly knowing, such that our fixities – for instance, our constructions: I am here, something is there, and there’s a ‘between’ – dissolve? Traditionally, the Nikāya Buddha named this knowledge that we need to develop as ‘the six’: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and cognizing (which has usually been interpreted as knowing mental events). It was, for him, comprehensive:
“What is the All?” he said. “Simply, it’s: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & mental content.”
I’ve expanded them because modern knowledge includes a lot of subtleties. In a recent post, I spoke of them as ‘the eight,’ but now I’m condensing them into seven – “seven domains of sensory life.” The names, by which I hope to encompass all that we currently designate as knowable are: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, interoception, and symbolizing.
The purpose of the lists is not merely to clarify the known for scientific progress (not in itself an unworthy purpose, of course) but in the Buddhist tradition it has always been for direct self-knowledge. So, next I’ll unpack the ancestral territory that we have available for deepening the inquiry into death, these seven domains of sense. The takeaway from the above paragraphs, though, is to be wary, during this analysis, of foreclosing our inquiry by assuming that our names, and the forms we discern, are the reality of the body. The body doesn’t actually have parts or opposites. It is an open cycle functioning, so our thinking about the body with its body-environment interaction via the linguistic gestures of ‘parts,’ ‘categories’ and other names, is meant to point to movements of an undivided process, an undivided multiplicity.
So, in respect of the many situations where the word ‘death’ is used, are we attuning to our bodies’ responses; and do we know how to venture into the unknown freshly?
It is the “sphere of experience that should be known” (said the Nikāya Buddha in the Kāmaguṇa-sutta, SN 35.117)
I’m reminded that so early in our project so many of the words that I’m using can’t yet mean to you what I want them to mean. We will have to work with them, until they bear new meanings, until they mean freshly.
I’ve think I’ve made it clear that this is so with the word ‘death,’ but what of other words which I’ve used – words like: ‘body,’ ‘insight,’ and ‘inside’ – especially the way that I’ve used ‘inside’? I wrote: “Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside?” What kind of ‘inside’ can this be? Even in this last decade of my fifty-year Buddhist inquiry, my experience of ‘inside’ has changed and deepened radically.
How do we find fresh life for the old words, words we meet everyday? Words don’t only accumulate meanings to become a fixed stock. They can be renewed – extended – by our whole-bodied, present use of them. A word’s use can feed back into its accumulated meanings, carrying concepts forward freshly, in line with our living – if we let it.
We do this in the same manner that we did as children: by resonating words against our feel of the situations. Words point to our being-in-situations – they find their meaning in bodily interactions.
How conscious are we, then, of the power of our speaking and thinking? When someone uses a significant word, I want to know to what experience the speaker is pointing, before assuming that I understand their meaning. Our conversations need to demonstrate in what way the words are meant. We have taken too much for granted.
For instance, I’m not one to use the ‘God’ word. But, if I’m talking to a thoughtful Christian, once we’ve got clear what kind of experience the word is pointing to for them, then I can use it with them. We might not always meet in the concepts, but we can meet in the experiences which they are meant to carry forward.
So, when talking about death, I try to show how I uncover, or invite, the experiences that I am naming. Recently I was talking with several people who were using ‘death’ in two main ways, but they hadn’t distinguished what these two ways were doing differently for them. It helped the conversation for us to get that distinction clear. I pointed out that the two meanings which they seem to be confusing were:
1) death as the ‘over-there/out-there’ experience; dependent mostly on knowing the physical death of others; death of an object; and,
2) death as experienced; death intimately.
The group could then begin to explore the idea of dying ‘before you die,’ once they had the insight that they were mixing up or collapsing two meanings under one label. Now they could feel each reference to death differently.
Through your bodily feel, you too can do the experiments and verify the meaning of the words for yourself. Here, in this project, I’m trying to show, as I go, how I use language, to free us from concepts. Let concepts serve us, not we serve them.
On your side, can you do reality-reading? As you read you remain aware of your body’s posture, its breath, its sensory presentations, its feelings, its felt meanings, and its thoughts – all in continuous flow? Can we not get lost in the words but refer them back to the ‘one who knows’ – our bodily interactional intelligence?
So, what is the job that words do for us? I have been convinced by forty years of inquiry into the relationship of language to experiencing, that the primary purpose of thinking and saying is to carry forward the situations in relation to which we are thinking and saying.
Free of craving and grasping,
Skilled in language and its use —
Knowing the coming together of sound,
[With] what’s passed and what’s next —
One is said to be
“A great person, of great wisdom,
In one’s ultimate body.”
– Dhammapada, verse 352. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
The following steps for cutting through unhealthy thinking are adapted from the work of Stanley Block; as presented, for example, in his book ‘Coming to Your Senses.’ This process helps in bringing deeper, spiritual work into daily life. It can be good for establishing the freshness of a ‘now-centred’ place, when you feel overwhelmed by a sub-personality’s repetitive, stressful patterns.
From the clear place that comes from this practice, you may be able to then turn toward the troublesome patterns with compassion: “Hello, Panicking One. I know you’re here.” (However, though I credit Block, I’ve heavily tampered with his method, so I don’t say I’m representing his process, here.) Finally, do this process as though it is play. Be a playful master of your own mind. Enjoy your inner work.
1. Recognize that you’re having negative thoughts, or an ‘overwhelmed’ process. It’s a part of you, not all of you. Give the experience some space. Start from being aware of your breathing, because it is a present-moment happening. You could say something like, “I am here, there is this body, and there is this painful process.” Breathe and include your arms and legs, and the middle of your body.
2. Then, say to yourself; “My thoughts are telling me that…( and summarise the negative thoughts.) Or, “I am experiencing the thought that … (state your negative thought).
3. Recognise that the thoughts are thoughts, and you are more than these patterns, by saying (simply), in an accepting manner (like a grandmother, who is humouring her boisterous grandchildren): “Those are only thoughts. That’s just what they do. I don’t have to follow them.” In Block’s terms, this prevents that negative thought from crossing over the mind-body connection; that is, of being embodied. They are presenting just one possible stance. In neurobiological terms, this is abandoning old neural pathways, and laying down new ones.
4. Having identified the pattern, and acknowledging that it is only a pattern of thought, now:Listen to your environment, to the background sounds. Feel the fabric of your clothes against your skin, feel the contact with your seat, or the ground, or the solid element below you. Feel the warmth of your body, your breathing, and your feet on the floor. In short come to your senses. Let your breathing be felt in your whole body, if you wish. Listen, touch, feel, smell, taste the bigger implicit dimension, the Now.
4. When the body tension lets up (showing that you have rested your I-System), then you have stopped the sub-personality’s thoughts from organising your body. You’ve restored some calm. Let the whole body have the result of the practice. Take it into every cell of your body, and down to the molecular and atomic levels. Enjoy the result – giving your body-mind this positive feedback. (This is based on Rick Hanson’s Taking in the Good.)
5. Now – only if you wish to – you are free to deal appropriately with the original thought without being hampered by body tension. You might, for example, empathetically listen to it, as though it were a small child whom you love. Or, perhaps now you are strong enough to do some ‘inner judge’ work – disengagement – or you’re ready to do some Focusing, or whatever is needed.
6. Repeat, and repeat, whenever needed.
My relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophy book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveys that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture which invites the felt meaning of Being.
So, for me, the ‘object’ of devotion in a ritual is never out or over ‘there,’ or ‘out there’ in the universe somewhere. It’s not the statue to which I bow. Neither does the statue represent some deity somewhere else. I am bowing to Being itself, retrieving my connection to Being via the being of my body. This is possible because one’s body participates in Being. A ‘human being’ is a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said.
Each morning, the first thing I do, after rising, is: I put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of the goddess of compassion Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha (inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh):
“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”
I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordiality of Being.
The meaning of any words, like the true meaning of any ritual, is what the words do in us – how they shift our state of being. Each word we speak is a gesture toward Being. The Nikaya Buddha suggests, in the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta): be mindful of the body in the body. So, I have a practice of speaking the gatha from my body, with awareness in my body, and feeling into the saying. It’s an experiment in consciousness.
I check inwardly, after saying my short verses, to see how the ritual has changed my body. This way, the ritual becomes an experiment, because I am present to see how I am changed by the posture and the sayings. Has the ritual brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, with this very body as its conduit?
And, when I say ‘together with all beings,’ it invites the bodily feeling that this grounded Being is the ground of every sensing creature. The sensing bodies of all beings are in your body. So, I’ve added another verse to this gatha:
These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
All the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.
I think of the English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674): “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”
Also, in the case of this particular ritual, I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does one become intimate with death, than in one’s body? In my bowing and in saying my gatha, I am putting myself in a gesture of being “one hundred percent for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it).
A Scientific American article suggests that: “Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”
David Michael Levin’s 1985 book (and his presentation therein of the work of Eugene T. Gendlin on ‘felt meaning’) gives us a good philosophical case as to why, by the gift of embodiment* our bodies respond to ritual gestures.
I’ve tried to think how I can quote Levin, to show, in a pithy way, the power of his vision, but when taken out of the context of the whole book, isolated passages are difficult to transmit. What I got from Levin’s book, though, (supported by my mindful inquiry and meditation) is as follows:
Our bodies participate in “the wholeness of the field of Being” (p.117); and so, the body’s symbol-making power combined with skillful embodiment can retrieve the primordial lived meaning of existence. Living this way, we realize our authentic belonging in Being, which illumines a host of problems we humans feel burdened by.
May all human beings – through the gift of combodiment* – be a hundred percent for birth and death.
* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” deserves a better word than ‘embody.’ So, I use the term, coined by Akira Ikemi, ‘combodiment.’
To ‘em-body’ is to put something into a body. However, ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with.’ All of life is ‘with’ the body; all there to be revealed. It’s a body primordially intertwined with all else.
You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodying paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.
You might be wondering where I’ve got to, so quiet have I been. However, I’ve been exploring a new passion. I’m impassioned about cultivating mindfulness differently. I’d like to share this with you: at thefocusingspace.com.au.
(I’m also planning a retreat in late 2018, to put this approach into effect. It’ll be in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia.)
Why do you meditate? Have you thought about it? I meditate because I’m alive. For me, it goes with being awake in this world. Meditating nurtures the process of being consciously alive. Meditation reveals that being alive is basically good. And, when I know I’m alive, I experience all kinds of positivity. To sit quietly, doing nothing but know one is alive – this enhances life.
What are the core aspects of being alive? Are we experiencing optimal aliveness? If not, why not? Why aren’t we appreciating and enjoying the miracle of existence so completely that we cannot but recognise that we already-always actually are this miracle of existence? Why cannot we see our beauty?
How is it, that humans are so violent towards themselves and each other, toward other species of plant and animal life, and even toward the mineral life and the waters of this small blue planet? Speaking from an ecological viewpoint for a moment, if we are the biosphere – which is obvious, isn’t it, at least logically? – then why are we treating ourselves so badly, destroying the life of forests, rivers and seas?
Precisely because we only get that fact logically, not directly touching it with our bodies! Meanwhile, the intellect divides what is undivided.
We live as members of a deeply divided species, divided in so many ways. You know them, these ways. I don’t need to enumerate, here. We need, then, a different a kind of consciousness to meet the situation we are in as a species – to end the divisions in consciousness would be wonderful and, at the very least, we need to live with a deeper kind of attention. We need, too, to awaken a consciousness that is big and generous enough to hold all the suffering we encounter when we truly open to what is in us and around us.
The meditative mind is crucial to all these things; sitting-meditation is a catalyst for a renewed consciousness and for profound shifts in identity. Meditation is a way we have to learn new ways to direct attention and even to change our habitual brains-states, and with regular practice to produce new human traits.
If you look closely, it becomes clear that ‘experiencing’ is core for all humans. No matter what one’s personal situation – or one’s background, or one’s congenital condition – sentience is core for human beings. How, then, has our ‘experiencing’ become degraded, so that we miss so much that is going on? Further, our habitual treatment of each other, worldwide, demonstrates that in large numbers we don’t know deeply that we are all equal in this basic fact of ‘experiencing.’ People treat others in appalling ways that could only indicate that they don’t get in their marrow that others are like them in the experience of suffering.
If I am ever to love my neighbour as myself, I need to learn to love myself. Meditating has been a major help in this, for me. Funnily enough, to sit quietly, forty-five minutes a day at least – openly, non-judgementally – to sit with myself ends my self-absorption. (Brain science has shown, by the way, that solo mediation activates social neuro-circuitry).
That’s certainly an important reason why I meditate – to be less self-preoccupied. What did Dogen say? “To study the self, is to forget the self.” The irony is that forgetting the self is knowing the self. And then, in that peace there’s space for ‘the ten thousand things.’
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.”
“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.’
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.
Biological life doesn’t stand still. Our bodily health changes through illness and accident. The healthy may easily have a conceit of good health, unaware of how close death can be. I suffered three special corrections to such a trance, all in 2014. Two accidents, then cancer. My long-standing practice of including death in my daily awareness turned these occasions into gifts.
The gift in these occasions was the confirmation of traditional wisdom that peace of mind is our greatest treasure. During this time the forms – such as reminding myself with rituals that this could be my last day – were far less important than actually living in mental ease. I found I was naturally more present in each breath. The formal ‘practice’ came into alignment with my everyday life.
In April of 2014 (four months before the cancer diagnosis), in the dark pre-dawn and in the rain, I fell down the steep stairs at the front of our house. I was alone that weekend, and so I guided my bruised body around without support from my family. It was a lesson in the humanising quality of vulnerability. It turned out that I had broken a rib in the fall – something I didn’t find out until we were doing a bone scan for cancer months later.
Next, in the beginning of June, I am coming back from an ultrasound (checking for the possible cancer), and – bang! – a head-on collision with a ute, on the highway in my hometown. The incident was instructive: it told me how my practice was going. My calm during and after the collision and my kindness toward others were notable.
The car was written off, though, and I could see how, without warning, in a brief and unexpected moment, your life could be finished. One doesn’t know one’s lifespan.
The results of that ultrasound showed that there was a suspicious shadow, so soon after I spent a night in hospital for a biopsy, which gave the unambiguous diagnosis. I am glad that I had been meeting the fact of death via the Third Remembrance for many years. Now, too, all those years of practising Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live (introduced by Stephen in his book of the same name) bore striking fruit.
I was less shocked about the diagnosis than I was of the car crash. (I had much more conceit around my driving!) In relation to the cancer I said, “Of course.” I said, “Biology means vulnerability. Biology means old age, sickness and death – and accident!” There was no, ‘Why me?’ The absence of which makes action much easier and wiser.
And, so, even though my ‘A Year to Live’ practice felt (for the rest of 2014) somewhat less formal, it felt like the most powerful year of practice yet – so much aliveness in the midst of ‘misfortune.’
But, isn’t our condition always one of vulnerability? That is exactly what this ‘A Year to Live’ practice is for – to wake us up, to show the bleeding obvious; that vulnerability is in every moment of human life. And the development of constant mindfulness is at its core.
As Stephen writes: “You have to remember one life, one death – this one! To enter fully the day, the hour, the moment whether it appears as life or death, whether we catch it on the inbreath or outbreath, requires only a moment, this moment. And along with it all the mindfulness we can muster, at each stage of our ongoing birth, and the confident joy of our inherent luminosity.”
― Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last, (p. 24)
(Here’s a good interview with Stephen, by the late Michael Toms, called Learning to Die in Order to Live. I recommend you browse the wonderful interviews from the New Dimensions site. Stephen himself died during the year I was writing this project. More of that soon.)
The biggest reason to do this practice, though, comes in health as much as in sickness. It is about meaning. Herbert Guenther writes, in his introduction to Book I, chapter two, of the fourteenth-century Tibetan meditation master Longchenpa Rabjampa’s Kindly Bent to Ease Us:
“…the thought of death is rather 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. It is in the light of death that I am prompted to act in such a way that, should death strike, my life may have had some total significance. The thought of death prevents me from losing myself in the fictions with which I tend to surround myself in order to escape from Being…”
In this spirit, for more than fifteen years, I’ve used ‘A Year to Live’ practice to turn toward the certainty of my death, as a means of growth and deepening into life; and especially, as an inspiration to keep in touch with the luminous mind, the mirror of the ground of Being. The practice enhances connection to who we really are.
What ‘practice’ means in actuality changes from year to year (and I will share the kinds of experiments in living which one can do), but in general what the practice means, for me, is: daily reminding myself that this is possibly my last year, living more fully in the present, and practising all kinds of exercises that confront me with the both the certainty of, and the process of, death. In general it means plumbing the depths of aliveness – to be open to, and appreciative of, the inexplicable wonder that anything is going on at all.
Knowing I am alive is the same as knowing that death is present: there’s no difference between living fully in the present, and living in the light of death. You can come at the miracle of existence through either door. However, the doors are the same door. They are both perspectives on reality, which imply each other.
So, a normal healthy life can benefit from this practice. We live differently – more consciously and kindly in the light of death.