Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hopelessness and Death as Guides Along the Way

I pulled out an old favorite, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, and opened to the chapter entitled "Hopelessness and Death." Pretty interesting having someone advocate that giving up hope and dying in every moment are keys along the path, but there it is. I was particularly struck by the following this time around:

When we have reminders of death, we panic. It isn't just that we cut our finger, blood begins to flow, and we put on a Band Aid. We add something extra - our style. Some of us sit there stoically and bleed all over our clothes. Some of us get hysterical; we don't just get a Band aid, we call the ambulance and go to the hospital. Some of us put on designer Band Aids. But whatever it is, our style is not simple. It's not bare bones.

Hope and fear, both close friends for me lately, seem like "style" themselves. I can feel them trying to lodge in the body, tickle the mind, anything to stay alive. And whatever they are doing, it's loud. Attention seeking. Sometimes fiercely hungry, demanding to be fed.

I have no doubts about still being afraid to die. The big one, I mean. Because I'm still learning to how take the small ones in stride. You know, the everyday changes that bring an end to something before you want it to end. Sometimes, I can hang with it well, take whatever comes. Other times, I'm piling on the style, trying my best to avoiding taking in what's actually happening.

A few days ago, I watched a powerful, old movie entitled The Burmese Harp. Finished ten years after World War Two, this Japanese directed film is all about the futility and misery of wars - both "inner" and "outer" in my view. In one of the final scenes, the main character, a Japanese solider who abandons his unit to become a Buddhist monk determined to bury all the war dead in Burma, responds to calls from his buddies to return to Japan with them by playing a song on his harp. A single tear falls from his eyes while he plays, and for moment everyone is silent, just listening. And then, when he is finished, the new monk turns, and walks slowly away from his friends for the final time.

There are numerous scenes in the movie detailing how difficult the decision is for him to leave his unit and abandon hope of returning to his native country. So, this final one, which may sound a bit stoic, actually is the culmination of that equanimity Buddhist teachings always talk about. The life he had as a member of the military, as a defender of Japanese interests, and even as a well liked man trusted to do difficult missions and keep his fellows soldiers at ease, is all dead. So, too, is the man who could turn his face from actual death, and the ways in which war destroys humanity. He dropped off all "style," and became very bare bones about life.

I'm finding that the "style" in my life isn't a single pattern. I can be overly stoic, somewhat hysterical, and even a bit designer now and then. Perhaps this is true for everyone.

For today, I will just hang with the style as it is, giving up hope of catching it all. That's where I am at. May we all be liberated.


Anonymous said...

left wondering from this post if you are:
depressed, isolated, in danger

Do you know someone in your life that you respect who can listen to you, who cares about you?

Could you call them and ask for some support or council? Any reason you couldn't call them?

From here, you sound pretty darn miserable; but maybe I misunderstand you & your words.

Please take care of yourself, I'm concerned.

Nathan said...

Writing about death tends to trigger wonderings like yours. It's happened to me before. I appreciate the concern.

Sure, things are challenging for me right now. Depressed? Some. Miserable? Not nearly as much as I have been in the past.

I'm actually heading out with family for a weekend vacation, and might not be on here much.

I'll be fine, though - something is being worked through in my life right now that I can't pinpoint. Old grief perhaps? Letting go of attachments to identities that don't fit anymore? I don't know.

The writing is part of that process, and your right that this post isn't particularly happy, and does reflect my current "offness."
But it's not an offness that is dangerous.

Have a good weekend.


Was Once said...

Try to fit in some meditation and have fun.

E said...

For an interesting perspective on stoicism listen here:

Sabio Lantz said...

"Because I'm still learning to how take the small ones in stride."

I loved that line. I wrote a post about "Mini-deaths" which is, perhaps, similar.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure you aren't confusing horizons from ruts - i.e. you are generating for yourself a conversation for no possibility. Wondering who is the gate-keeper for this dharma gate if not you?

Some of your assertions ring hollow & frankly pretty boyish in my ears:
-I'll be fine, though - something is being worked through in my life right now that I can't pinpoint. [a little passive voice talking here?]

"Old grief perhaps? Letting go of attachments to identities that don't fit anymore?"

"I don't know"is a pretty empty place to stand if it justifies inaction and being stuck."


Back in the days when I met with a group of very respectful men for years in the Twin Cities sometimes a guy would begin talking about addicted positions like "I don't know why I drink so much... after listening a while people began to recognize it was a pretty aimless looking back position.
Sometimes some one would offer a mild challenge -how about if you stop obsessing about why and ain't it awful, and the broken glass and start finding something to do about it? How would you talk, what would it sound like if you began again looking forward not backward?


IMV, A guy lost in a forest of abstractions wants a chainsaw and a commitment to a direction and maybe a companion to talk with once in a while and a little personal courage not more ruminating about how lost in the forest he is, why me (?), rehearsal of failures, short-term distractions and a 100 other between-the-ears gatekeeper conversations that guarantee being stuck.

I've been re-reading David K Reynolds Constructive Living and Pima's The Wisdom of No Escape. They've been good resources for for me if [when] I can recognize that I'm stuck [again] in a forest of my own abstractions and there is no view of the horizon just the rut I'm in. Re-reading just now Pima's chapter on Renunciation which she calls letting go of holding on... Still pretty interesting after all these years.

Wishing you a little courage when you need it to step over the fear when you are the author of it.