• September 2, 2018

    I am receptive to the view that Vajrayana Buddhists have of what happens after death…that our consciousness enters a bardo between death and rebirth where we re-experience mental simulations of the unresolved emotional states of our life. I am also careful to say that I do not know any of this for certain and I have yet to meet anyone who does. I therefore do not intend to roll out all the concepts and imagery of the Tibetan traditions.

    But I can engage in a thought experiment. What would be my experience if I continued to be aware without a physical body? Would it be something like the dream state?

    Let’s say that I am conscious but I have no means to engage in current sensations…only the memory of them…and I am no longer ‘located’ in physical space. Having no body, I am not actually anywhere in a real sense.

    In ordinary life, I experience the reverberation of the physical and the mental. A sense experience gives rise to related or associated mental content which in turn engages further sensations. This is what my ordinary ‘emotional’ life consists of…identification with one thing or another, reactive ping pong between mind and body, punctuated by horizontal sleep.

    Now, let’s remove the physical side of the equation. Remove the ping. Now I am ‘living’ within the mental simulations of my own undigested experiences, memories, the same repetitive loops of thought, fear, anxiety, jealousy, anger, greed that characterized my reactive, identified life in the body…but without the grounding of tangible sensory input or the possible shock-interruption of something new from outside.

    Feeling claustrophobic yet?

    My ‘experience’ would be just projections of my mental states with nothing to contradict them. Where is there a refuge from this tedious, repetitive self-expression? Voluntary presence and attention? Have I learned to sustain them while in the body, when it is so much easier? Or do I find that voluntary presence and attention are impossibly fleeting, quickly overwhelmed by the internal roar of associative thought projections powered by habitual identifications? Can I interrupt the flow of otherwise unimpeded thought loops?

    This is why we have the black room…a room with absolutely no visual references, no sense of location. This may be somewhat like life after death if it exists. Can I sit in that room and maintain presence and attention? Do I remember the tricks we have discussed for doing so? Or do I immediately fall into associative thinking or even sleep? Voluntary attention and presence open the possibility of choice, of movement, of contact outside yourself. Perhaps, when you are dead, you will wish you had learned to sustain them amidst the flow of personal experience.

    Why sit in the black room? Perhaps to prepare for your death.

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  • June 13, 2018

    One of the most powerful myths of our time is the myth of limitless potential. It seems that every commencement speech, every news story about young people, has this cliché…anything is possible, you can be anyone or anything you want, there is nothing impossible for those who hold on to their dream and strive to achieve it. In my view, there is no better foundation for sleep than this one.

    The class of child-like billionaires spawned by the technology revolution in places like Silicon Valley are planning and investing for a day when death will be no more, when science prolongs their life indefinitely and they will emigrate to Mars. They do not need to deal with the consequences of their actions, they just move on into a more wonderful future. The result is that they remain encased in their own self-importance, unable to penetrate the realm of feeling.

    It is my struggle with my limitations that enables me to observe self and achieve some measure of self-mastery. My failures enable me to feel compassion. My death, which every day grows closer, invokes sobriety and also, paradoxically, the qualities of passion and impersonal joy.

    The moth is attracted to the flame. The light is blinding. The flame is deadly. But where else can the moth experience such wild intensity. The moment of dancing its death is the summation of its life. So may it be for me.

    Searching for the limitless is complete nonsense. And it is very damaging, a fantasy that blocks our engagement with reality and the possibility of being human. Potential is never now. Something without limit never arrives. It’s a way to avoid the facts of our existence.

    This work leads not to the celebration of limitless possibilities but to the discovery of what is…the Terror of the Situation…and, with that, a possible awakening of conscience and compassion…qualities that are found in failure, suffering and the loss of illusion. Do you still hope that things will work out for you in the end, a comfortable conclusion, a Hollywood ending? If so, you still haven’t got the message. And despite the poor prospects, I am asked to do my best anyway, just for its own sake.

    Can I recognize that the limitations written into life have been imposed by the universe on itself? This world is not some cruel joke played on us. In this work, God is not thought of as some separate being untouched by the pain of His creation. Nor is the universe a dead material thing. As Mr. G noted, He has entered His world, crucified Himself in His own creation, become a full participant in the details, limited by the laws He has used to form this world*. There truly is no escape. Since we cannot get out, we must go farther in, accepting the flame, not seeking to avoid it.

    Last week, another person I know died from cancer. For years, he avoided his fate, convinced everything would be ok and his life would continue. At the very end, he discarded this view and in an act of great courage, he faced the end. This was a gift that may benefit others.

    * “In the beginning, I alone was. I had nothing but Myself with which to make the world; out of Myself the world was made.”  E.J. Gold, The Man on the Cross.

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  • February 19, 2018

    Some people will skip this post because of the title.

    A friend of ours died this week. It was not a surprise; it was a long, nasty, painful, wasting death from cancer. The end was a blessing.

    It is not death that is disturbing to me, it is the dying.

    Is there some continuity for our existence after death? Let us be clear. We do not know. Pretending to know is a sin.

    There have been dozens of books written by authors who have interviewed people who supposedly died and came back to report that they had entered into a white light and met the friends and family who had gone before them. As the Dalai Lama noted, there is only one problem with these reports. None of these people had actually died. They had a bright light with friends experience. Dead is dead.

    There are two observations I can make about the dead that have never left me. One is that seeing the dead body of someone you knew in life is a shock because they are suddenly so obviously not the person you knew. They are fundamentally unrecognizable. Something very palpable is missing. What is that? Where did it go?

    Second, I have the continuing sense that all living things leave an impression that survives when they are gone. I do not mean a subjective impression in my mind or heart. I mean that there is a sense of their essence continuing…a uniqueness of theirs that persists…imprinted in space?…as though their physical nature was simply an expression of this something else which existed before and exists after their life. Exists where or how? I do not know.

    All of this leads me to think that it is good to continue to communicate with the departed in our thoughts and feelings. It may be useful to them. It may be useful to us.

    One thing is certain. Most of us would never, ever get sober or wake up without a connection to death, ours or someone else’s. Encountering death is the best chance most of us get to make a real change.


  • July 4, 2016

    I find that I do not feel very much compassion for the less fortunate, the victims of terrorism and so on. Perhaps I have no heart?

    If you find compassion in your life, it will be in your immediate surroundings, among the beings you meet, not events on the news. Compassion is shared feeling, not just shock or pity.

    Before you can have a heart, you must expose your heartlessness. Before you can have compassion, you must see your hatred and intolerance. To have success on this path, we must go ‘by way of the negative’, not asserting what we want but rather exploring what is. To find compassion, explore its opposite because that is something you can know with certainty, as you are.

    The ancient masters said: “The undesirable must be relinquished before the desirable can be attained.” We would all like to set out on a wonderful journey to remake ourselves in the image of our ideal. The journey must begin where we are.

    I cannot make compassion. It arises naturally in a heart which is not preoccupied with me, my wants, my thoughts, my reactions and, especially, my ideals. There is nothing less compassionate than an idealist.

    What do you mean?

    Idealists want the world to conform to their ideas. By its nature, idealism has the arrogance of prejudice and judgment. It looks to the future rather than the present. It makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

    What does it mean to relinquish?

    To relinquish is to voluntarily cease to keep or claim…to give up. This is the key. The problem is that we involuntarily hold on to the things we most want to change. With one hand we reject them, but with the other we hold them fast. This struggle occurs in the nervous system, electrically and chemically, the result of conditioning. It’s an addiction of sorts. Who would we be without this struggle?

    Relinquish the undesirable, it is said. Begin by observing yourself, not afterwards or analytically but in real time. Learn to adopt an impartial attitude—it is more important to see what arises in you than to influence it, judge it or defend it.

    You will begin to see the habitual linkages of sensation and thought that hold you together as you are. You will begin to uncover the self-images and personal narratives that get you through the day. They have been there all along, running in the background, influencing nearly every thought and action, nearly every posture and gesture. When you have seen one such pattern long enough, when you have exhausted all your emotional reactions to it, when all that’s left is a subtle distaste for what you see, you will be ready to relinquish. It is a death of self, one of many on the way. In my understanding, this work is never finished.

    Does something desirable arise after an undesirable thing has been relinquished? Surprisingly, it does.

    Related Post:

    Objectivity – July 29, 2015

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