Saturday, November 8, 2008
Getting Down to It.
The past month has presented me with some of the most difficult moments of my year long experiment thus far. As it sometimes seems to happen with such things, life has curiously contrived to present me with some rather daunting difficulties to go along with all of the memories and incidents that my practice has uncovered and stirred up!
Here is a question; What do we do, as humans, when we are confronted with such painful and difficult situations in life?
Clearly, there is no way to avoid such things. Pain and suffering are part of our lot in life. We are of the nature to experience these things from time to time... and, naturally, at some point we are destined to grow ill, to become weak, to suffer... and, eventually, to die. This is not something that can be avoided.
Many people, particularly in western culture, go to some rather shocking lengths to remove all trace of this possibility from our daily lives. We no longer witness the slaughter of livestock that ultimately end up on our dinner plate. Instead, those who eat meat can obtain their dinner neatly packaged in cellophane & Styrofoam with hardly a trace remaining of the pain & suffering caused by the killing and butchering of the creature that now sits placidly on our dinner plate. Every last ounce of responsibility has been neatly swept under the proverbial rug.
We rarely verbalize death when it comes to our loved ones, opting instead for pithy euphemisms such as, "He (or She) passed away....", "Moved on...", "Went to heaven...", "Expired" (!! like a discount offer?), "Met his end..", "Was taken", "Resigned...", "Surrendered..", "Departed..", "Yielded up the ghost...", "Went the way of all flesh..".
Death has become the ultimate taboo... don't think about it... don't talk about it. And yet, it is one of the things that every single one of us holds in common; the inevitability of our death.
It strikes me as a bit, ah... "Ostrichy" to refrain from facing it and calling it what it is. What is wrong with saying that so and so DIED?? Why do we have to stretch it and pull it and put all of the lipstick on this pig that shall remain a pig regardless of what we try to do to disguise it!?!?
What is next? "404 ERROR - Pulse Not Found"??
Look.. no matter how fast we run, we cannot run fast enough to escape death. We carry the seeds of our own death within us.... along with most of the problems, pains, sufferings, and heartaches that we will ever experience. The good news is that we also carry the solutions, joys, happiness, and triumphs... or at least the potential for each.
As I face my days of late, I am confronted with problems... problems are good; By learning to face them squarely, to push our envelope farther and farther until we find viable solutions to the problems that confront us, we improve, we learn, we mature... we become stronger and we push our roots deeper and deeper into the earth. At the same time, we learn to be more flexible... to open the fist of force, arrogance, anger, fear, and all of the other afflictive emotions that often plague us, and to allow ourselves the vast and limitless growing room of the accommodating and loving heart. Only by learning to let go will we ever be able to hold on.
As I sit in meditation, working on my life review, I am uncovering some of the most painful memories that I possess.
These are memories that I have long pushed down into the farthest recesses of my mind... covered over with the detritus of time... shut the door upon and turned away from. It is peculiar to me that I now find myself digging down to uncover and expose all of this stuff and bring it out into the light of my attention and focus.
Somewhat surprisingly, these memories have not dimmed at all in their ability to cut, to sting, and to wound. I now realize, however, that only by actually accepting and feeling these feelings - completely and honestly - do I have any hope of ever exorcising them... or, failing that, ultimately accepting them just as they are, and then setting them aside and moving on to whatever happens to come next.
I don't need these memories, really, but, I cannot un-remember them.
This much I have learned.
The only alternative, really, is to open my arms to them... accept them... accept that they are a part of me... and, with some practice and skill... love them. This is really the only alternative that seems to be within the scope of my abilities. It isn't easy... but nothing that is worth anything ever is.
This process of accepting the facets of ourselves that we would prefer to forget isn't really so different from embracing death, is it? We don't like it... but it wont go away.. so, we live in fear, reacting and allowing the resulting afflictive emotions to guide us... and in the long run creating more pain and suffering for ourselves and for those around us.
Or, we stop, turn, and face this impending death. Recognize it for what it is. Accept that it cannot be avoided. Accept that it may claim us at any moment... for death is the ultimate 'Equal Opportunity Employer' - death has no respect for age, position, wealth... it cannot be bargained with..cannot be intimidated... and cannot be bought off. Death is coming, and we are absolutely and completely powerless to stop it. But, we are not powerless to accept it, and to love that part of our nature that we call death. And once we have learned to do this... we lose our fear of living.
By embracing death, and by thereby embracing life, we strike off our shackles, cut away the strictures, and allow ourselves, at last... to breathe... and to live. Rather than run, we stand. Rather than react, we respond. Rather than causing pain and suffering through needless (and useless) avoidance and aversive behaviors, we bring about healing and acceptance.
I don't like every part of my past. I don't like every part of myself. I don't like everything that has happened to me, and I don't like everything that I have done.
So what? What can I do about that?
If I continue to hide, to run, to avoid... it is like telling a lie. One lie necessitates the telling of another to support it... and soon, they exponentially increase until we find ourselves so tangled up in our own deceits that we are rendered immobile. Immobility = death; and so... by attempting to run from it... we have instead run directly towards it.. and perhaps quicker than would have otherwise occurred. And let me ask you; Is there much in this world that less pathetic than a life that is nothing more than a day to day living death??
What has happened, has happened... what we can do about it is to simply recognize it for what it is... and figure out the very best response available to us given the circumstances; whatever they happen to be. The perfect situation never comes. The perfect time never arrives. At least not in the sense that most people conceive of it. The truth is that the perfect time and circumstance is never NOT present... it is ALWAYS the perfect time.
How we approach the present moment dictates how the present moment will unfold. Our ability to respond to the moment is entirely up to us. If we allow ourselves to be blinded, shackled, and crippled by old baggage, notional thinking, pre-conceived notions, groundless fears, biases, prejudices, hatreds, and aversions; We are already dead.. already the victim of each and every one of our fears... and simply walking in a gray, tasteless, featureless nightmare ... a parody of a life.
I am beginning to learn that I am not actually "anything". I am completely and utterly empty.
STOP. Before you process those last two sentences, I want you to go back, read them again, but this time use the following definitions;
Anything= stagnated into a pre-existing list of qualities, conditions, traits, opinions, and actions.
Empty= devoid of pre-conceived attributes - completely open to all potentialities - accepting, open, attentive.
When I have conceived of myself in the past, I have often created a view of myself that I held somewhat dear and close to my heart. I was "this" kind of person, but not "that". I wore "these" kinds of clothes, but not "those". I am such and such and so and so, and this what I am. It was like painting a picture of myself; in essence, living life one-step removed, rather than living it firsthand. I have come to realize that all of these notions are simply my own creations... they are mental formations, and nothing more. In truth, I am none of that. I am not particularly honorable nor dishonorable, truthful nor deceitful, nice nor nasty, kind nor unkind... not in the sense that it is a concrete, unchanging reality.
What I am is what I choose with each unfolding moment... and with how I respond and act according to those choices. Nothing more. Nothing less. I don't have some narrow path that I must follow because I am 'such and such' or a particular 'kind' or 'class' of person. I am what I am when I act in a certain fashion. Period.
When I embrace a loved one... fully and completely... giving every last ounce of my being into that embrace... God is present in that 'God function' of loving and giving. This is what I have learned.
I feared this life-review, I feared standing up to my own judgment... my own opinions.. my own distastes. I did not want to hold up past thoughts, past actions, past circumstances to the harsh light of my own hindsight. But, you know what? We have to make both good and bad choices in life... and we have to live with the consequences of each.
A Rabbi friend of mine once told me that Jewish people are taught to give thanks for blessings before they have received them, because it is quite likely that they will not be able to recognize them when they arrive, as they often come cloaked in the guise of a curse!! Imagine that!! There is wisdom in that, I think... and it is pertinent to my life review. Why? Well, it is quite easy for me to sit and look back over my life, my choices, my mistakes, and even the willful harmful actions that I have perpetuated with a clear eye and pronounce them as 'wrong', and thereby condemning myself to being 'bad' or at least wanting in some way... However, each action that I have ever chosen was chosen in a particular frame of mind, at a particular time, and in a particular set of circumstances.... often, the decision point at which some incident or action could have been avoided was missed simply because I had not yet developed the coping skills or the ability to recognize it by having had the painful or difficult experience. And that is the key. We learn through our own mistakes. We learn (hopefully) through the mistakes of others.
Mistakes are gifts, in a way. They help us to fine-tune ourselves... they teach us... they help us to become better people.
I am slowly developing the ability to let go of these burdens. And I am beginning to teach myself to open both my eyes, and my heart.
Problems will come... difficulties will come... that isn't what is important.
What I choose to do when I am confronted with these situations is, however... and as I allow my heart to open, and as I learn to let go and give myself entirely into whatever situation arises, I am finding that I am better equipped to keep my legs under me, my feet upon the ground, my spirit in balance, and I am therefore able to step forward with confidence into whatever my life has in store for me.
My life review is not yet over... but it has already taught me a great deal about what I am, and what I am not.... and what I have learned is that I am not anything that I thought I was. I simply am... and I continue to be... I am like a work of art; I can never be finished really...
... only abandoned.
That isn't a part of my plan.