death

Reflections on the death of my mother

Photo from a photobooth, from 1961, showing a young woman with glasses holding a baby. She's smiling, while he's looking startled and overawed by the experience.

It’s my birthday today, and it’s unlike any I can remember from my now 63 years on this planet.

It’s the first birthday I’ve had since my mother* passed away on Christmas Eve, just 11 days ago.

My younger sister died just over a year ago, and I wrote then about how my practice helped me with the grief I felt. I’m not going to write about grief today, mainly because my primary emotions have been of relief and gratitude that she didn’t suffer longer. Her last days were pretty grim as she struggled to breathe, and things were only going to get worse. Today I want to look in a different direction.

Also see:

On previous birthdays my focus has usually been on myself: I am a year older. I have completed another cycle around the sun. Happy Birthday to me!

Now I’m more aware of the “birth” part of birthday. Today is the anniversary of the day that my mother gave birth to me. So today seems more about her than it is about me.

She carried me inside her body for more than nine months (I was fashionably late). I grew from a single cell into a baby nourished entirely by her; her body became my body.

Today I very much have a sense that I am a part of her that has, in a way, budded off and continues her existence in the world, even though she is no longer here. My life is a continuation of her life.

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River, parts of our mother often live on within us.

During gestation…

[C]ells from your mother’s body can cross the placental barrier and infiltrate your own body, in a process called “microchimerism.” These maternal cells can settle down anywhere in the body, including the blood, heart, liver, and thymus gland … These cellular interlopers have been shown to live within the offspring’s body for decades, and they may be with us for life. You are not just you, you’re your mother too.

These cells have been found in the pancreases of diabetic individuals, pumping out the insulin that the person can’t manufacture themselves. They’ve been found in damaged heart tissue, and are thought to be trying to repair it.

My mother may still be within me, trying to keep me healthy. (Admittedly, though, some autoimmune disease is believed to be a reaction to the presence of certain material cells.)

My brain and mind were profoundly shaped by her. My first experience of love was her love. We know from the horrible experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby rhesus monkeys how maternal deprivation destroys children. As one description of Harlow’s work says,

[T]he monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation. When the isolated infants were re-introduced to the group, they were unsure of how to interact — many stayed separate from the group, and some even died after refusing to eat.

Harlow’s experiment also proves the converse: the gift of love creates our humanity. Not our biological, chromosomal humanity, but our sense of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings connected in love with other thinking, feeling beings.

This was one of my mother’s gifts to me.

A child initially learns most of its language from its mother. The fact that I’m using language to communicate with you now is me passing that particular gift from her.

There are many character traits I picked up from her as well, not through conscious imitation but through unconscious imprinting. Some of those traits are helpful and some less so, but the point is that here too my life is a continuation of her life.

She inherited character traits from her parents, and they from theirs. As with the presence of maternal cells in our bodies, this is by no means all positive. Perhaps my task in life is to take the best of what has been passed on to me and amplify it, and to take the worst and eradicate it. And thus I can pass on the best of my mother to the world — not just through my children, but through all my contacts with other human beings.

My mother died on Christmas Eve. So I’ve now gone through one Christmas, New Year, and birthday without her. There’s a certain amount of grief been present, and there may be more to come — perhaps especially when those celebrations come around again — but that will fade. The love and gratitude, however, will remain.

*Her name was Eleanor Dorothy Stephen. She was born 16th March, 1938. Her birth certificate lists her family name as Tragheim, but she always went by Tragham, my grandad having begun to adopt a less German-sounding last name during the war.

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Honoring five Wildmind authors who are no longer with us

Parinirvana Buddha. Photograph by Ankur Panchbuddhe.

Parinirvana Buddha. Photograph by Ankur Panchbuddhe.

Today, February 15, is known as Parinirnava Day in much of the Buddhist world. It commemorates the anniversary of the Buddha’s death, or Parinirvana. It’s a time for bearing in mind the essential truth of change, instability, and impermanence (anicca).

It’s traditional on Parinirvana Day to read the scriptures concerning the Buddha’s death: especially the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. It’s also traditional to visit temples to meditate, and to remember that our own lives here on earth are limited. Parinirvana Day is also a time for remembering friends and family who have passed, and often we’ll place their images at the foot of an altar.

For me, this blog often acts as a kind of memento mori, or reminder of death. To the best of my knowledge five people who have shared articles here have passed away: two of them I knew personally, while others I’d only exchanged emails with. I wanted to take the opportunity of Parinirvana Day to bring them to mind, to say a little about them, and to encourage you to read their articles.

Suvarnaprabha

Suvarnaprabha

The first is Suvarnaprabha, whose name means “Golden Radiance.” That was a great name for her, since she had a vibrant personality, full of humor, although she preferred to go by “Suvanna,” finding her Sanskrit name a bit combersome. She could be deeply serious, but she often laughed and inspired laughter in others. I vividly remember going with her to see Robin Williams perform in San Francisco, where she lived, and us spending the evening with tears running down our faces.

On Wildmind’s blog she wrote an advice column called “Ask Auntie Suvanna.” The original intent was for this to be a humour endeavor, but as time went by the requests for help became sadder and sadder. Suvanna’s responses were always kind and wise, though, and were often hilarious. I’d suggest starting with her pieces on the Buddhist approach to excess body hair, and On eating vegetarian monkey brains.

She also wrote a piece about teaching meditation in prison, which was very close to my heart as I was doing the same thing at the same time.

Suvanna documented her experience with cancer in two blogs, the first of which detailed her initial diagnosis and treatment, and the second of which, Crap, I’ve Got Cancer, took up the story of the cancer’s return.

Saddhamala (Nancy Nicolazzo)

Saddhamala

Saddhamala (“She who is garlanded with faith”) was someone else I knew personally. We first emailed each other around 1998, when I was at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana, and she was at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, although at that time she wasn’t yet ordained and went by her birth name, Nancy Nicolazzo. A few years later I moved to Newmarket myself, and I saw her a fair amount.

She was known as Nancy in her work as a chaplain and volunteer coordinator at a hospice, and it was in a hospice that she passed away. She’d had cancer that had metastasized. Knowing that death was inevitable she’d decided not to seek treatment. She was a talented woman who’d also worked as a consultant. In fact I once employed her to help me make my office space more pleasing and efficient, and the results were wonderful.

Saddhamala wrote many articles for Wildmind. She had done a lot of teaching and tended to distill her suggestions into lists of tips for practice. Sometimes, though, she wrote more personally, for example when she discussed her family background.

Marcus Hartsfield

Marcus Hartsfield

Marcus wasn’t someone I knew personally, and I must have met Marcus on social media. He was a therapist in California, and practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center. One of the striking things about Marcus was the number of tattoos he had — many of them Buddhist themed. I asked him to write an account of his journey on Wildmind’s blog, and so he wrote, Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos, illustrated with a number of photographs.

Marcus passed away in 2013, I think. Not being a friend of his, I never did learn how Marcus died. Someone who knew him said he’d been ill, but she didn’t know anything beyond that.

Hazel Colditz

Hazel Colditz

Hazel Colditz was another Wildmind contributor I never had the good fortune to meet in person. I’m sure I would have liked her. Hazel was a talented photographer, documentary maker, and sculptor of rock and metal. She lived in the Arizona desert. We met on social media when she offered to review a book for me. She ended up writing three reviews in total, for “Taneesha Never Disparaging” by M. LaVora Perry, “Sitting Practice” by Caroline Adderson, and “Jake Fades” by David Guy. I always enjoyed her perspectives, and she was a joy to work with. She passed away in January, 2012, having battled an aggressive form of cancer for several months, and having endured multiple major surgeries.

Navachitta

Navachitta

Navachitta was part of the Auckland, New Zealand sangha of the Triratna Buddhist Community. She was ordained into the Order in the summer of 1990 in Taraloka, in Shropshire, England. I never new her personally, although we corresponded periodically by email for many years, and I always appreciated her support and encouragement.

Navachitta was a therapist who worked in private practice and was very active in the recovery community. You can read more about this aspect of her work in an interview she did with a representative of North West Buddhist Recovery.

One wonderful anecdote: While living in Britain, Navachitta once went to a builder’s merchant, saying she was looking for sacks. But hearing her New Zealand accent, the men she was talking to unfortunately thought she was looking for “sex.” Hilarity (although to the best of my knowledge no sexual intercourse) ensued.

Before her untimely death she only had time to write three articles and reviews for Wildmind’s blog. One, entitled From drama to Dharma, was on addiction to drama. Her second piece, Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction, is about the connection between addiction and the potentially beneficial trait of novelty-seeking. Her final piece was a review of a book of poems by a fellow Order member, Satyadevi. The poems were inspired by natural and industrial disasters that had taken place in New Zealand.

Navachitta passed away in London at the age of 62 from a severe bacterial and viral infection.

***

I hope these stories have encouraged you to explore the work of the five individuals I’ve drawn attention to.

But on a deeper level, all five of their deaths were unexpected. I know I make assumptions about how long I’ll live (late eighties to early nineties?) and how I’ll die (either in my sleep or in a hospital bed?), but none of us ever knows when our time will come. It could be today.

And so the Buddha encouraged us to be mindful that death can come at any time, not so that we become afraid or depressed, but so that we be inspired to make the most of this precious opportunity to practice.

Life is swept along,
next-to-nothing its span.
For one swept to old age
no shelters exist.
Perceiving this danger in death,
one seeking peace
should drop the world’s bait.

We’re also asked to bear in mind, even more pithily, the remembrance, anicca vata sankhara : “Impermanent, indeed, are all created things.” Let’s mourn our losses, while tempering them with an awareness of their inevitability. And above all, let’s take them as an inspiration to live the best lives we can create.

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Grief as a spiritual practice

My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

For a life to end is a strange thing. All those memories, those unique experiences, feelings, thoughts; all gone. We are left, holding our end of a relationship, and yet our love has nothing to connect to. I’m not surprised people like to believe in an afterlife (Fiona did, having lost her youngest child) but that’s not my thing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in my book, This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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What the death of an animal can teach us about the power of ritual

a ceremony to help children process a death

I am fascinated and touched and inspired by the deep love many children have for wild animals. It’s a love that seems natural, and sometimes more immediate than what many adults (including me) have to offer, at least on the surface.

Yesterday, my nine year old saw from the front porch that a raccoon had been killed by a car on our street. It was a terrible sight. She called her siblings out to see. The littler one, who is six, was very sad: “I just feel so bad for the raccoon.”

I felt bad too, and tried not to let the experience become a symbol for all the sadness I have about these sorts of things.

I suggested we light a candle for the raccoon. It occurred to me that the driver who hit the raccoon probably felt awful about it, so I shared that too and wished that person well.

And then, though that was all I had at the moment, my kids took it from there.

They gathered a wreath, the nine year old making the label “raccoon,” and the 6 year old making the picture above, which includes an assortment of vehicles with a big X through them.

“Why can’t everyone just ride bikes?” he asked (although in the picture I think the bike got an X too.)

This whole thing happened and the candle burned for the next couple hours and they told dad about it later … and all of this helped them work through their feelings. Me too.

It was a sad situation, but I felt comfort witnessing their feelings of love and connection, their care for another living being and for one another, AND the seeming effectiveness of this ritual.

It taught me about what I can do to manage my own sadnesses. It taught me that these rituals and gestures can be effective and meaningful. And it taught me about the loving kindness that lives inside us and is right there to tap into.

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Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

See also:

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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Making the most of this precious human birth

Six shuttered windows in a honey-colored concrete window

Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.

First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.

So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say an
ything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.

The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:

Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.

So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.

But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”

This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.

In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.

And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.

The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.

  • Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
  • Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
  • Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
  • Asuras are too obsessed by power.
  • And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).

Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)

Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.

Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!

So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.

Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.

And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.

We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.

We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.

The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:

Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.

So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.

Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.

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You are the child of all beings

A well-known Buddhist teaching explains that all (or at least most) beings have, at one time or another in the inconceivable past, been close family members:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration [saṃsāra]. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on [literally “saṃsāra-ing”]. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find. [Māta sutta]

A millennium or so later this was elaborated by Buddhaghosa into a reflective practice, so that we contemplate in detail how any person we’re feeling resentful of has, at some point in the past, as our mother, carried us in her womb, given birth to us, suckled us, and taken care of us. And as our father, this being has previously worked tirelessly and took great risks to provide for us, and even went to war to protect us.

The point of this practice is to eliminate ill will. Recognizing the debt we owe to others, we can think, “It is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that hinge upon a belief in rebirth, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each moment we die and are reborn.

This is what I think the Buddha had in mind, rather than literal rebirth, when he said in the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta:

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?

If there’s only a constant process of death and rebirth, moment by moment, then there’s no “thing” that can be born, age, or die. Thus there’s nothing to mourn or fear, or to long for.

If we look closely at our own moments of death and rebirth, we see that ultimately each one of them takes place not with us as an isolated unit, but as an inextricable part of a greater whole. Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth.

Each perception is the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, or even think of someone, a new experience arises and we change; in a sense, we die and are reborn with every contact we have with another being.

Right now, as you read these words, my thoughts are echoing in your mind, evoking new experiences. Each word gives birth to a new you that didn’t exist a moment before.

And since the constellation of experiences that is me arises in dependence upon many other beings, your reading this article right now connects you to everyone who has ever been in my life, everyone who has been in those people’s lives, and ultimately all beings who are or have existed.

And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers and fathers.

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Dead or just meditating? An Indian court to decide

wildmind meditation newsDean Nelson, TheAge.com.au: The family and followers of one of India’s wealthiest Hindu spiritual leaders are fighting a legal battle over whether he is dead or simply in a deep state of meditation.

His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj, the founder of the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan religious order, with a property estate worth an estimated £100 million ($181 million), died in January, according to his wife and son.
However, his disciples at his ashram have refused to let the family take his body for cremation because they claim he is still alive.

According to his followers, based in the Punjab city of Jalandhar, he …

Read the original article »

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Five remembrances for deep peace (Day 90)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In learning to experience deep peace in the face of impermanence, we need to consider not just our inner experience, as I did yesterday, but our very lives, and the lives of those around us. Life is short; we all face loss.

These things aren’t really different from what I was discussing yesterday, since it’s our inner feelings about changes in the world that we largely have to deal with, but the same situations can be looked at from different perspectives. When we’re actually experiencing loss, instability, and change, we can work on accepting the the feelings that arise with equanimity. But we can also prepare ourselves philosophically for painful changes that may happen in the future by reflecting on their inevitability. And this is a technique that the Buddha encouraged.

In the Pāli canon there is a set of five remembrances that help us to recollect that change, loss, and death are not unusual events, but are woven into the very fabric of existence.

These remembrances are:

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid ageing.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become their heir.

These five reflections are then placed in a more universal context, so that the first one, for example, becomes:

I am not the only one who is subject to old age, not exempt from old age. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to old age; none are exempt from old age.

All five reflections are seen in this universal light; all beings are subject not only to old age, but to illness, death, and to separation. And all beings are owners of their actions (karma).

And these, the Buddha said, are remembrances “that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth.” In other words we should all be thinking about this — frequently.

If we do, it does a number of things.

  • We’re better prepared for change that might otherwise throw us off-balance. When we’re forewarned, change is disarmed.
  • We take change less personally. Often even getting old is taken as a personal affront: as if it’s an error. Surely this wasn’t supposed to happen! But of course it’s a universal fact. When we’re young we may look at the elderly and feel a degree of contempt, as if their age was a sign they’d failed. Actually, the fact they’re around is a sign they’ve succeeded, in a way; as they say, getting old is no fun, but it beats the alternative.
  • We realize we’re not being singled out. Everyone experiences loss. Everyone gets sick. Everyone is going to end up dying. These things are not some judgement the universe is meting out on us as some kind of punishment. All things are of the nature to decay and pass away.
  • We feel more sympathy for others. We’re all in it together. Just as I age and grow sick, so do others. The elderly and the chronically sick are simply experiencing now what I am going to experience in the future. Since we’re all equal in this regard, I don’t have to psychically distance myself from others’ suffering. Having compassion for them now, I’m more likely to be able to accept my own suffering when old age, sickness and death strike.
  • We’re challenged to take responsibility. The Buddha’s saying: “Life is short: you’re responsible for what you do with it. Now what?” When we consider our own mortality, life becomes more precious, and it becomes more important to live meaningfully and with compassion.

As a result of all this reflection, our minds become more deeply imbued with peace. We live in peace, able to be equanimous in the face of difficulties. But this is all upekkha in a more everyday sense of “bearing difficulty non-reactively,” which is not upekkha as a brahmavihara. Where upekkha as a brahmavihara steps in is where we compassionately and lovingly wish that all beings come to terms with impermanence, that all beings be able to develop calm, and peace, that all beings awaken from the dream that impermanence bypass us.

This is the dream of denial and delusion and clinging:

To beings subject to aging there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to aging, and aging not come to us…’ To beings subject to disease there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to disease and disease not come to us…’ To beings subject to death there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to death and death not come to us…’

Resisting impermanence in this way simply increases our suffering. Not only do we have to face loss and change, but we have to face the disappointment of our clinging coming to nothing. Accepting impermanence helps us to experience peace; and when we wish that others too accept impermanence and experience peace, that is the brahmavihara of upekkha.

May all beings be free from delusion and clinging. May all beings accept impermanence. May all beings awaken. May all beings live in peace.

PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about

tara-brachWriting and speaking about the nature of awareness is a humbling process; as the third Zen patriarch said, “Words! The way is beyond language.” Whatever words are used, whatever thoughts they evoke, that’s not it! Just as we can’t see our own eyes, we can’t see awareness. What we are looking for is what is looking. Awareness is not another object or concept that our mind can grasp. We can only be awareness.

A friend who is a Unitarian minister told me about an interfaith gathering that she attended. It opened with an inquiry: What is our agreed-upon language for referring to the divine? Shall we call it God? “No way” responded a feminist Wiccan. “What about Goddess?” A Baptist minister laughed and said, “Spirit?” Upon which an atheist replied, “Nope.” Discussion went on for a while. Finally, a Native American suggested “the great mystery” and they all agreed. Each knew that whatever his or her personal understanding, the sacred was in essence a mystery.

Awareness, true nature, what we are—is a mystery. We encounter the same wordless mystery when someone dies. After his mother passed away, my husband Jonathan looked at me and said, “Where did she go?” I remember sitting with my father as he was dying—he was there, and then he wasn’t. His spirit, that animating consciousness, was no longer present in his body.

Nothing in this world of experience is more jarring to our view than death. It takes away all our conceptual props. We can’t understand with our minds what has occurred. Love is the same way. We talk endlessly about love, yet when we bring to mind someone we love and really investigate, “What is this love?”, we drop into the mystery. What is this existence itself, with all its particularity, its strange life forms, its beauty, its cruelty? We can’t understand. When we ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware?” and really pause to examine, we can’t find an answer.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “If everything … changes, then what is really true? Is there something behind the appearances, something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place? Is there something in fact we can depend on, that does survive what we call death?”

This inquiry turns us toward the timeless refuge of pure awareness. When we ask ourselves, “Is awareness here?” most of us probably pause, sense the presence of awareness, and say yes. Yet every day we restlessly pull away from this open awareness and immerse ourselves in busyness and planning. Our conditioning prevents us from discovering the peace and happiness that are intrinsic in taking refuge in awareness. Seeing how we paper over the mystery of who we are is an essential part of finding freedom.

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley called awareness “Mind at Large” and reminded us: “Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet.”

From an evolutionary perspective, our brain’s primary function is to block out too much information, and to select and organize the information that will allow us to thrive. The more stress we feel, the smaller the aperture of our attention. If we’re hungry, we obsess about food. If we’re threatened, we fixate on defending ourselves or striking first to remove the threat. Our narrowly focused attention is the key navigational instrument of the ego-identified self.

I saw a cartoon once in which a guy at a bar is telling the bartender: “I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about.” If you reflect on how often you are moving through your day trying to “figure something out,” you’ll get a sense of how the reducing valve is shaping your experience. And if you notice how many thoughts are about yourself, you’ll see how the valve creates a completely self-centered universe. It’s true for all of us!

This incessant spinning of thoughts continually resurrects what I often call our space-suit identity. Our stories keep reminding us that we need to improve our circumstances, get more security or pleasure, avoid mistakes and trouble. Even when there are no real problems, we have the sense that we should be doing something different from whatever we are doing in the moment. “Why are you unhappy?” asks writer Wei Wu Wei. “Because 99.9% of everything you do is for yourself … and there isn’t one.”

While we might grasp this conceptually, the self-sense can seem very gritty and real. Even single-cell creatures have a rudimentary sense of “self in here, world out there.” As Huxley acknowledges, developing a functional self was basic to evolution on our particular planet. But this does not mean the space-suit self marks the end of our evolutionary journey. We have the capacity to realize our true belonging to something infinitely larger.

If we fail to wake up to who we are beyond the story of self, our system will register a “stuckness.” It’s a developmental arrest that shows up as dissatisfaction, endless stress, loneliness, fear, and joylessness. This emotional pain is not a sign that we need to discard our functional self. It’s a sign that the timeless dimension of our being is awaiting realization. As executive coach and author Stephen Josephs teaches, “We can still function as an apparent separate entity, while enjoying the parallel reality of our infinite vast presence. We need both realms. When the cop pulls us over we still need to show him our license, not simply point to the sky.”

Most of us are too quick to reach for our license. If our sense of identity is bound to the egoic self, we will spend our lives tensing against the certainty of loss and death. We will not be able to open fully to the aliveness and love that are here in the present moment. As Sri Nisargadatta writes, “As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, you seem short-lived and vulnerable, and of course you will feel anxious to survive. But when you know yourself to be beyond space and time, you will be afraid no longer.”

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