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sunday thought(s)

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Sometimes I go about pitying myself
and all along
my soul is being blown by great winds across the sky.

Ojibway saying
image: Hiroki Suzuki


everything’s guaranteed (to die)

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Someone’s father died recently and another’s dear friend ended her life unexpectedly. Talking with them both reminded me of my own experiences with loss. With a simple flip of the coin, life becomes death. The moment we enter the world the clock starts counting down the hours until we die. It’s a fact.

We celebrate the cyclical comings and goings all around us — first day of spring, midsummer, and autumn; first day of school, mid-term, graduation; birthdays, weddings, and retirement parties. Each marks a milestone along the path from birth to death. We celebrate the “happy” events, but avoid the “sad” ones. We don’t much talk about the latter and so they come as a shock, leaving us to cope alone as others awkwardly step aside, lest they be infected.

“The cup’s already broken” goes that old Zen saying. Everything we know and cherish comes with a built-in guarantee of impermanence. Nothing lasts. Why then are we, educated and intelligent beings that we are, so surprised when death comes knocking?

the cup is already broken (zen saying)

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(Further to post and comments of Nov. 29.) Everything we encounter, create, or possess is subject to decay. The ending is built into the beginning. We may not like it — in fact, we resist and deny — but there it is. In my beginning is my end,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets.

Someone brings us fresh flowers and within a few days they wilt and get thrown away. No big deal — no clinging, no lamenting. But the more we invest of our/selves, the harder it is to let go. Open any box in storage or wound in the heart — and find stuff you won’t let go. And we’re devastated when a friendships goes bad or a loved-one dies, when no amount of holding-on can restore wholeness.

A friend just finished a 12-hour shift on the maternity ward and we talk on the phone. There’s a fridge where still-born babies are kept, she explains; some parents come for a last visit before a porter takes everything to the morgue.

Fragments from my friend’s notes:

what goes on in the dark night /
room seven / no lullabies / only sadness /
deliver / cry eyes out / go home / to what?
cold f
etus / now a ‘specimen’ / goes to autopsy /
our human need / to know / cause of death.

May mothers sleep soundly tonight before they wake to the horror of an empty crib. May all caregivers be blessed with strong hearts as they go to work for another day. May all beings be at ease.

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doesn’t anything last?

Once again I realize that nothing (repeat: nothing) lasts. Neither a momentary sensation, nor any feeling, thought, sight — and certainly not a life. Everything is in constant flux, revolving, unfolding, disappearing, and emerging. How easy it is to forget (refuse to remember?) such basics. Duh!!

Why, for example, would I get depressed; feeling as if there’s no purpose or hope, that life has lost meaning, that there’s no reason for getting out of bed, that nothing could possible make me laugh again. And then, a few hours later or the next morning, everything’s changed. I look out the same window as I did yesterday, see the same houses across the street, the same kids walking to school, the same flag flapping in the wind — yet there’s no weight on my heart. I see what’s there and attach nothing to it. No sadness, no despair, no disappointment. No good or bad. Simply thusness as Buddhist teachers name that which defies naming. The best I can figure right now is that my ‘small self’ desires order, wants something firm to hold on to. A delusion, apparently.

Shakyamuni Buddha once asked his disciples “How long is a human life?” As none of them could find the correct answer, he explained that “Life is but a breath.”

image credit: Gene Kelly, poster, source unknown.

after the rain

As I mentioned to Nathan (in reply to his comment of yesterday), if we do the right thing and the stars are aligned just so :-), we may be rewarded for our efforts. No guarantees, alas. In our little family the day began with lightness, freshness in the air as if after a summer rain, much laughter, and eye-to-eye conversations. A rarity, I always thought, but there it was: we got along just fine. It was if my outburst of yesterday relayed my heart’s desire for acceptance, that we listened to each other in a deeper way, and that my apology smoothed feathers and brought us close.  

The thing with all matter, especially relationships, is that nothing lasts. Impermanence is a fundamental understanding in Buddhist practice. What I can do is rejoice in the lifting of weight and at the same time watch my step (in thoughts, words, actions) carefully. Who knows what mood or topic pops up at the next turn — and calls us to be mindful again and again?

“Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and suffering on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened and my practice of liberation and universal compassion me be truly fulfilled.”

Tibetan prayer, in Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart. New York: Bantam, p. 73.

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who me, equanimous?

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How is it, I said as we sat in the café’s morning sun, that I pay such attention to bad days — days when things aren’t going my way — but barely comment on days when everything’s more or less okay, when nobody get on my nerves, and my mood’s on the upswing? From time to time you’ve written about not believing your good fortune, my friend replied, but yes, on the whole, good days get pretty much taken for granted.

I heard the word equanimous for the first time 15 years ago while participating in the first of several 10-day Vipassana retreats taught (via audio and video recordings) by S.N. Goenka. It sounded foreign and had many syllables; the best I could make out from the evening lecture was that if you practice equanimity (some kind of non-attachment) to the good and bad things in life you’d reach contentment. A quick etymology check reveals that equanimity comes from Latin aequus “even” and animus “mind, spirit.” Even mind, a certain imperturbability, regarding what comes my way; not preferring one over the other; clinging to neither good nor bad.

Interesting practice! Come to think of it, isn’t that the essence of meditation: observing thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations arise and fall away; bringing attention to the neutral breath and watching all that stuff float by — like an angler at the river bank, letting flotsam be flotsam.

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can’t imagine your own death?

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The day after my recent arrival at the monastery, Hogen asked me to come and have tea. As we sat on the floor of his office, he gave me a choice of Japanese tea … or Turkish coffee. Bringing water to a boil, adding extra-finely ground dark beans and sugar, he asked what I’d been doing. Aware of the preciousness of alone-time with a senior teacher, I skipped the chit-chat. “I have been pondering the difficulty of imagining my own death,” I said. “There are fleeting moments when I sense no distinction between one and the others — during meditation, say, or sexual abandon — but for 99.98% of my waking hours the ego seems incapable of imagining its own demise.”

I can offer you two kinds of chocolate, Hogen gestured towards a stash of sweets, one with bacon flavour, the other with Mexican peppers. All organic. And in the next breath, he addressed my dilemma: The Daishin of ten years ago is not the one sitting in front of me. You’ve changed so much. Not just on the cellular level — but look at your mind state, your equanimous ways. Yes, the old Peter is dead, I realized. “Thank you for the coffee.” Bows.