Endless Grief

Endless Grief

Grief is an ocean. It comes to us in waves, every wave possessing a different character and momentum. This is an ocean we all live in from the moment of our birth. The grief of a child is easy to see; in growing up we learn to hide our grief beneath an endless variety of disguises. We weep, we are depressed, we stare at the walls or create art. Some of us learn to project our grief on others in the form of hatred and prejudice. Some of us seek redemption through power and influence. Some become saints and some become monsters.

We’re often told that we can ‘get through it,’ and once we manage to do so the grief will no longer dominate our lives.

I can locate two points in my life where the waves peaked. I was torn between total numbing withdrawal and the painful and cathartic release of the deepest pain. My freedom from the struggle came in the act of unrestrained weeping. Both events were in response to the loss of someone very close and dear to me, one was mostly due to my own regrettable choices and one was a suicide.

This past year I spent mostly in bed or on the couch fighting the onset of cancer (if ‘fighting’ is the proper word). My main occupation, besides taking drugs for sleep and pain, finding new ways to eat, and showing up for chemo, was reading esoteric fiction and Doctor Strange comic books going back to the early sixties. I watched old Star Trek episodes on Netflix and made cannabis tea. My strategy in dealing with the loss of function was partly nostalgic and partly a form of pure escape. It stifled the sense of passing time that was leading me toward some mysterious ending.

I was given a reprieve. Time returned me from a state of suspended possibilities, bringing me new opportunities for choices and a chance to reflect upon my interrupted journey. Release from work and the need to meet schedules set by others put me on a bridge between regret and hopefulness. I’d survived for now but had lost a degree of functionality. It left me with no certainty about where I was headed or where I wanted to land.

It left me reeling between feelings of almost absolute freedom and a deep conviction of failure and incompetence. When I finally arose from my time upon the couch, I faced an altered world. The peak of the worldwide pandemic coincided with the height of my own illness. Everything was changed. The undercurrents of grief and anger had risen to the surface. Everyone appeared to be traumatized in some way. Businesses were closed; streets were full of the homeless and hospitals full of the dying. Nearly everyone now is masked in public, while hidden emotions and collective resentments force their way toward the surface. Politics have split the nation into warring factions, to a degree that the basis of trust that makes a functioning society possible is seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, frayed.

Grief appears to be everywhere.

In spite of all of this I forced myself to climb out of the hole of indecision and aimlessness that had ruled my existence through a year of trauma. I resumed the discipline of sitting every morning in meditation, observing my mind in a mirror. I witnessed the ghosts and demons of repetitive patterns that carry me through both hope and despair. Gradually my life regained a sense of direction and purpose that informed my daily routine of waking, sitting, reading, listening to podcasts while making breakfast, then making the time to write or to practice photography. A feeling of freedom began to ascend over thoughts of self-hatred and despair.

In the ocean in which we swim only change is certain.

A couple of weeks ago I opened a series of doorways into computer hell. I automatically upgraded my computer to the latest operating system software without thinking very much about it. After the upgrade the application in which I did the organizing, processing and printing of my photographs simply ceased to function. Nothing I tried solved the problem. No help was available from either the software provider or the computer maker. The advice of these massive corporations was to wait a month or two until they managed to coordinate with one another.

My forward motion was brought fully to a halt as I spent many hours desperately seeking help online. Instructions provided by people having similar problems not only didn’t work, but their results forced me to take the whole mess to a professional technician. He first encountered the same problems I did, but eventually a workaround was found that not only cost me a lot of cash, but also led to the irrecoverable loss of a good chunk of historical data.

I found myself once again floundering in the waves. I felt incompetent and helpless, angry and depressed in turn. I couldn’t find the inspiration to write while obsessing on the problem. My feelings began to bleed into my relationship with the world of other people. Friends who could see my distress offered well-meaning advice, and the advice was angrily rejected. I felt that I was on my own, that there was no help to be had, that every choice I made led to worse problems. My anger was petty and mean and an expression of accumulated grief for the loss of relationships, the community of work, my bodily functions, and as much as anything the loss of the world I’d grown accustomed to living in.

I’m now in recovery mode, sorting through this relatively minor wreckage, and yet I feel some kinship with those who experience the aftermath of flooding, fires, earthquakes and economic collapse and have to rebuild their lives from the ground up. Although small in comparison, my problems evoke reactions based on far more than the event in itself. I carry with me the sense of everything I’ve personally lost and gained, as well as the victories and losses experienced by people all around me.

In the West we worship our individuality as if it were a Holy Grail, but it’s mostly a fiction. As much as we isolate ourselves and our feelings from others, we are inescapably social beings who share together both joy and pain, immersed in the currents that surround us.

Here I stew alone in my ‘laboratory’, surrounded by computers, camera, iPhone and streaming television, struggling to find my own voice through all of this. The place is small, two rooms with a kitchen alcove and a tiny bathroom. Every move in the past decade has seen me downsizing, sorting through every object that has a story, deciding which to let go. There’s little room in here to live in the past, so I’m forced to live somewhat ruthlessly in the present. Although I stay up on the affairs of my country and of the world, I’m growing more of a protective shell to separate my feelings from the emotional maelstroms provoked by our collective struggles. I often fail. The struggles continue and will never end, but their weight is never mine to carry alone.

Loss is a given, grief is forever, and I swim in the same ocean as all of you. We can’t stop the storms that are coming, but maybe we can learn to swim with the tides.

Seventy

This week I approach my seventieth birthday. It’s the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, with whose passions and contradictions I can totally relate, particularly the fact that his vision so far exceeded his grasp. As a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery, as an obssesive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, Jefferson’s restless mind would not allow him to reside in any fixed station. Instead he imagined an ideal world, nonexistent at the time, where every human being had, by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights to pursue satisfaction in whatever way they could. The nation he helped to get off the ground has yet to achieve those ideals, having been saddled, as was Jefferson, with the contradictions between commerce and equality.

Today I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me past the close galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating the blossoming trees and the opportunity to pull down our face masks to appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to Zen talks given from Mount Tremper in New York via podcasts on my iphone. I contemplated my own conflicts and contradictions and my own position in regards to the present and the future.

In contemplating the inner struggles of the past three years it occurred to me that I could turn things, so to speak, on their head. Instead of seeing only chaos and obstacles culminating in the crashing and devastating halt of the pandemic, I could see all of this as an opportunity. Perhaps, as we each approach a sense of possible and impending mortality, we can sort out the the wheat from the chaff both in our individual natures and in the world at large.

The basic contradiction in American culture, it seems to me, is where the cult of individual freedom clashes with the common welfare, and by extension where the demands of a capitalist system clash with the aspirations of democratic institutions. Perhaps, with the ascendency of the present administration, these contradictions have been put before us in as plain a vision as could be possible. As a nation addicted to celebrity culture and to the pursuit of personal wealth we’ve managed to elevate to the highest level the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, devoid of empathy or of compassion or of any consideration that transcends the possession of pure power and an illusion of control. Some of us have done this out of avarice and some out of fear and pure desperation.

For those of us who have conceived of a different world, governed by the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole, these three years plus have been both a travesty and a challenge. Most importantly, it has daily shown, in our responses and reactions who we really are, at our best and at our worst.

For me, it has fully exposed a current of rage and resentment that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and which I’ve strived to suppress or which has been the engine of my own self judgement. Where does it come from? Perhaps some is inherited through family dynamics or early childhood disappointments and frustrations. Not a little has emerged out of the pure disillusionment of having been raised with the highest ideals only to see them continually subverted within the world I’m forced to navigate. Some of it is a product of an empathic reaction to gross injustice done to others. Whatever it’s origin, this steady undercurrent of rage has in many ways made my life and the experience of those around me more difficult, rather than less.

For this I am deeply aggrieved.

Yet, on the other side of rage is compassion. I’ve long considered his to be my greatest failing. On the one hand, I’ve always experienced an acute sense of empathy with those who suffer in this world. On the other hand I’ve allowed those feelings to feed my sense of outrage against those whom I perceive to be the propagators of that suffering. In my mind and in my emotions I’ve separated those who I perceive as the victims from those I’ve perceived as the victimizers. As our culture has become more and more polarized, between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the powerful and the weak, this has metastasized into what amounts to an internal ‘civil war’ that I find myself fighting on a daily and hourly basis. There are the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, and my vision doesn’t allow for anything between total victory or total defeat.

What has become increasingly clear to me, in this cultural moment when the rug has been pulled out from under both the perpetrators and their victims, is that we are all relatively helpless in the face of forces that are so much larger than our petty struggles over greed and ego. So, now the question becomes whether I can overcome my feelings of rage and resentment, and join once again the collective experience of the human race in a manner that goes beyond ego and ideology, and is nothing more than a reflection of the forces that I perceive as the enemy.

* * *

In the last couple of months the vicissitudes of age have finally caught up with me. The work I do for a living has taken a deep toll on my body. My shoulders are a tight mess, the tips of my fingers have grown numb with the carpel tunnel effects of the former, yesterday when I took out my bike for the first time since the Fall, I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount up. My plans for the future and for retirement are, as a consequence, all in serious question. On top of this is the virus and a question about how my previously strong immune system has stood the vicissitudes of age. In short, the question of mortality stands before me as never before.

The lesson that I believe needs to be learned is that the outcomes are out of my hands, and that my responsibility to myself is to live this life as much as I can in a state of acceptance rather than one of eternal conflict. This is admittedly very difficult for someone who feels both like a warrior and a disillusioned idealist. I will always be a warrior. What I need to let go of is the disillusionment. Then I can begin to address the problems and situations in front of me without having to view them through the destructive discoloring of rage.

Who knows, perhaps the possibility of compassion is not even out of reach. Perhaps even that possibility can extend to an America still caught between dream and reality and having to face its own collective demons.

To Soften The Heart

To soften the heart.

To be at peace.

To cease one’s war with everything.

To accept surprise.

To approach with wonder.

To find patience.

To honor what is.

To allow for love.

To relinquish control.

To become oneself.

To blossom into joy.

To give without demanding.

To be true.

To surrender.

To live.

To soften the heart.

The Teacher

Dear Charlette,
 
So, this morning as I came before my teacher for our weekly meeting (dokusan) the first thing he says to me is “How was your week? Were you finished beating up on yourself?”
 
My thoughts were: “Shheeeyt, is this so obvious to everyone around me? Three people that I treasure have pointed out this quality in just the past couple of weeks. Is it my most prominent feature, like a huge mole on the end of my nose? Oh well, I had to tell the teacher that I still indulged in quite a bit of it (see my last email to you). He told me a story about how we first erect imaginary obstacles and then have to summon up the courage to ‘overcome’ them. They are, after all, imaginary
 
Let this be my Zen journal, as it feels like one hell of an adventure upon which I’ve embarked and I’d like to tell it to somebody that can either sympathize with or at least comprehend the ramifications. 
 
Speaking of hell, you could call this a “journal from hell” I suppose. Hell defined as the “six realms of samsara” that the Buddha perceived as the source of human suffering. They are as follows:
 
Hell is the realm where we make each other suffer. Or when we subject ourselves to the frustrations of some inner struggle that we can’t let go of. 
 
Hungry ghosts are beings that exist in a world of unending and unsatisfied craving. Consumerist society thrives in the world of hungry ghosts. Our economy would collapse if too many of us diverced ourselves from this delusion. 
 
Animals are those who are content to eat and sleep and work and have no other aspirations in their lives. They are those who have surrendered their volition to others.
 
Asuras are those who define themselves in opposition to those perceived as enemies. It’s this one that I’d like to illuminate. (see below)
 
Human Beings are those who project their success or failure endlessly into the future. They are never satisfied with the present. 
 
Heavenly Beings are those who have achieved everything that our society defines as the necessary ingredients of success. Their primary motivation is to protect what they have gained and they are governed by the fear of losing. 
 
Usually in the time of presidential politics I’m ‘out there’ o the firing line launching scathing critiques and obsessive analysis regarding the tide of battle, the enormity of hypocrisy, the evil of Republicans, etc. This is what I’ve done in the past, but haven’t really wanted to get into in the present. It doesn’t really nourish me or anyone else. If negativity is the only voice I can summon I’d just as soon sit this one out. 
 
I’ve tried to take the angry reactivity that so much of the political dialogue sparks and turn it into statements that project something positive and optimistic into the future. I’ve even seen this as a ‘spiritual’ practice…and so it is. The problem is that the political discourse has become so much more poisoned and polarized than ever before (in my lifetime) that even to get near it is to risk the danger of being overcome by the fumes. So, I’m not writing much of anything these days, laying low until something new and authentic and not merely reactive arises from within me. 
 
Shohaku Okumura in his book Living By Vow describes the realm of hell that’s most relevant to the tendencies with which I’ve most strongly identified in the past.
 
Asuras are fighting spirits. Asura was a mythical Indian god of justice. When we believe we are right, we criticise others based on our own concept of justice. If necessary we fight with others until we win. Exterminating people who oppose us becomes the purpose of our lives. Such people cannot be satisfied without enemies. They can’t live without something against which they can struggle. We all have this sort of attitude sometimes. When we have someone to criticize, we feel safe, righteous and good.”
 
That sure sizes up the spirit I’ve identified with for most of my life. I probably will never quite get beyond this identification, as I’ve spent so much time living it, but perhaps I can step back from it and not let it possess me so completely. 
 
I’ve long thought that it’s almost impossible for people to fundamentally change their habit patterns. I still tend to believe that only in the most extreme circumstances do human’s really change. However, I now see that it’s possible, by seeing clearly these habits for what they are, a person can allow them to show themselves but choose not to hitch a ride. 
 
I may try my hand at another essay this week. No promises. I’m trying to write something everyday. It’s kind of a vow I’ve made to myself. The biggest challenge is not letting exhaustion overtake me. Of course, the nature of a vow is that it may be unattainable but at least it’s a target to aim for. 
 
With Love,
 
Ralph