The Great Leveler

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. – Jorge Luis Borges

Two weeks ago I was with my friends up near Parksville at our annual spa getaway.  As we were getting out of the car at the entrance to the resort, I spotted a dead bird lying on the side of the parking lot.  For a moment, the two of us who spotted it paused, and expressed that moment of “aw”.  It was freshly killed, although by what means I couldn’t determine, and if I had reached down to touch it, it would probably have still been warm.  Instead, I turned away and walked into the resort with my friends, more or less forgetting about it.

One of my favourite Buddhist articles, and one I turn to and re-read every now and then, is called “Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics” . It’s an interesting, if somewhat mind boggling examination of the irreversible process of time and decay from both a physics and a Buddhist perspective, and ultimately it is a gentle reminder of the great leveler:  death.  Since the event of my mother’s passing when I wasn’t quite 15, I have been alternately curious and terrified of the idea of death.  In the western world, we tend to hide dead bodies, or when they are displayed, as in an open casket funeral, the bodies are dressed and made up in order to preserve something of the person that used to reside in them.  In other words, we try to make them look as if they might be sleeping, but not dead. We don’t like to think of death and we do everything to avoid it, both emotionally and physically.

At the age of 15 I had no frame of reference to make sense of my mother’s death;  it seemed only a cruel, dark and frightening event that I immediately began the process of trying to forget.  I have since experienced the passing of many people, some were close to me and others were simply acquaintances, and each time it happens, I am brought to that same emotional quagmire where there are no answers to any of the big questions.  It seems for many of us that the emptiness that comes with the death of a loved one always carries with it the same list of questions.  Why did that person die and where did they go, if anywhere?  Human beings are wired to wonder.  Some of us have our spiritual beliefs to fall back on when these life events throw us for a loop, and they give us comfort to some degree.  But even with all of those spiritual explanations to the mysteries of life, I’d venture to guess that the original questions still exist for many people, even if only at the back of their minds.  My mother’s death sent me on that inevitable spiritual quest and eventually I found my peace with it.  I’m grateful my children haven’t had to experience the same thing at such a young age.

But last year when we had to euthanize our cat, my daughters faced the end of a life for the first time.  Up to that point, they’d never gone through the loss of anyone dear to them, so this was as close as they’d been;  a sobering event and one that brought about the usual list of questions.  My daughters are both young adults, so they weren’t exactly asking me “Mommy, why?”, but I know they were both grappling with what it all meant.  I watched them grieve in a way they never had before, and became acutely aware of my own inability to take their pain away.

We buried Picard the cat in our back yard in a place where he used to love to lie in the summertime.  And for many days after we buried him, I wondered about what was happening to his body…perhaps a morbid line of thinking and disturbing to some degree, but it was also a strange kind of curiosity.  For a time I wondered to myself if maybe it would have been better to have him cremated; maybe to avoid the discomfort of having to imagine him decaying there.  But the decision to bury him had been made long before, and so he remained in the ground, a garden stone with his name on it marking his place.

The other day when I was cleaning the kitchen, I turned on the radio, and as I worked I listened to a CBC show called The Bottom Line with David Suzuki.  I’d never heard of it before, but my curiosity was piqued when I realized that this episode (Episode 8) was about the interconnectedness of our bodies and the earth around us.  They went into some detail about what happens to a dead body if it is left to the ravages of the outdoors, whether buried or not, over time.  As gross as it was, it was also quite fascinating, and it reminded me of that article I mentioned above.  But what was most interesting to me was the idea that the earth provides us with food and water and air in order to facilitate our lives, and when we die our bodies become the same for the creatures around us, whether we are buried or cremated.  You’ll have to listen to it to get the real picture, and I warn you, some of it is a bit grotesque.  But I especially liked Suzuki’s story of his father writing his own obituary and what he said in it, which was a kind of thread of thought that went through the whole episode.  Now you’ll have to listen for yourself :-), and in fact you can hear a podcast of that episode if you go to the link above.

One life changing experience for me took place in February of 2000, when a friend of mine passed away from colon cancer.  I was not there at the end of her life, but I did visit her body at the invitation of her family at her wake.  I had not been present when my mother passed away either, nor had I ever seen a dead body before, so this was definitely a new experience for me and I was pretty hesitant at first to enter her room.  It was kept cold by an open window, probably to slow down the decomposing process (sorry to be so graphic!), and she lay on a bed which was decorated with flowers and hearts because it was near Valentine’s Day.  I reluctantly sat down on a chair by her, and eventually decided I should say something to her, but it felt kind of strange talking to myself.  Which is really what I sensed I was doing.  After a respectable amount of time, I got up and left the room.  Days later it hit me that seeing her like that was very much like seeing a dead creature on the ground;  just an empty shell of something that used to be, about to disappear back into the earth.

That event changed a lot of things for me;  it gave me some of the answers that I had been seeking since my mother’s passing and set me on another course of self discovery.  Those two events, my mother’s and my friend’s passing, became like bookends to my spiritual journey, not that I feel my journey has ended, but I do feel more comfortable with the way I view it now.  To me life and death are a perpetual, critical cycle, filled with many smaller cycles, each in balance, each requiring the end of another one before, so that it can begin. I’d forgotten all about the dead bird until we were checking out of the resort at the end of our weekend.  The bird’s body was still there, but in those two days it had already become more or less skeletal, decomposing quite rapidly that short period of time;  going back to the earth that gave birth to it, giving its body back so that other creatures could be, for a short time, given life and allowed to thrive.


God or No?

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.Image via WikipediaI’m pretty sure Steven Hawking’s publisher or promotions people were the ones who decided to promote his new book “Grand Designs” by proclaiming “God Did Not Create the Universe!”  I mean, if anything is going to get attention, especially in these times of religious warring (has there ever NOT been a religious war going on?), it’s that phrase.

The predictable has happened…religious leaders are already up-in-arms (is that not an oxymoron?) fighting for headlines to dispute, refute and protest their outrage at any such notion.   And so it begins again, this age old “I am RIGHT and you are WRONG” argument.  Haven’t we, as human beings, figured this out yet?  Just because I prefer the red shirt, doesn’t mean you have to wear it too.

Years ago, I used to think that one day science might prove the existence of God in some way…maybe not the man in the beard God, sitting on some kind of throne or however you visualize it, but some evidence of a form of energy that was the beginning of our universe.  There is even something in physics called the Higgs boson, or the God Particle that is considered to be a singular elementary particle, possibly predating every other known particle.  What I visualized was a coming together of two very separate trains of thought, science and religion, eventually merging onto the same track.  Since then I have come to the conclusion that even if it was possible and there were people out there willing to explore this potential fusion in that way, it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  Too many people are threatened by anything outside of their belief to listen to something different.  And too many others are hell bent (sorry for the pun) on convincing the rest of the world to believe what they do.  Religion, and ironically also the lack of it, is killing us all!

There are many, many people of different religions, and atheists and agnostics in the world who are perfectly willing to peacefully accept those of other religions or non-religious thought, with no feeling of threat to their own beliefs.  But we don’t hear those stories because they aren’t tabloid enough I guess.  I personally know Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who would not for a moment attempt to convert me or anyone else around them.  And I know there are regular meetings between religious heads, and even organizations like the World Council of Religious Leaders, who are trying to mend fences and work together to end all of this religious conflict.  But their calls for peace are like whispers in a thunderstorm.

There’s a point you reach when studying Buddhist teachings, when you realize that most people on this planet have as long a road to inner peace (never mind world peace) as you do.  Many have not even recognized their need for self examination yet, so how are we ever going to get “there”?  It’s overwhelming.

So as much as I admire Steven Hawking’s amazing knowledge and understanding of the workings of the universe, by reducing his book to a phrase that only adds fuel to an already blazing fire of disagreement, he is doing more to separate us than pull us together.  And that is truly a disappointment.


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This, Too, Shall Pass

My Dad used to laugh about a fellow he’d often see while driving his bus every day in downtown Vancouver. This guy was obviously a street person, maybe a little off his rocker, and he always carried a sign saying “The End Is Near!” It entertained my father to no end. (Little pun there). 

Actually, the street person might have been one card short of a full deck, but he was absolutely correct. In fact, “The End is Here!” Things, events, lives, circumstances…are ending every moment. It’s what the Buddhists refer to as impermanence. Nothing, as it turns out, is permanent, not even the massive Rocky Mountains or the sun that rises every day. That might seem a depressing thought at first, but it can also work in your favour because it means that difficulties and bad times and suffering end too. And the end of suffering, as it happens, is the Third Noble Truth. 

Suffering does indeed, come to an end.

We’d all like to escape our misery by just being able to push it away or pop a pill, attend an inspirational sermon, watch a good movie, or read a great book. And while all of those things might give some temporary relief, quite often the root of our unhappiness remains because it is self-perpetuated. The cause is often created in our own minds. 

As I have mentioned before, taking some time to pay attention to your own thoughts can be quite a revelation. Realizing how much our thoughts influence our attitudes, moods and behaviours in every moment of our day-to-day existence is the first step to understanding what the Buddhists call the “nature of mind”.

It isn’t as much about control as it is about awareness. And if we pay attention long enough, we become aware of another Buddhist saying…”all that arises, must cease.” 

We are less successful when we look for distractions in the external world than we are by simply paying attention and noticing how thoughts and circumstances come to their own, natural end. Sounds kind of mundane, doesn’t it? But we’re impatient sometimes; we want to end our discomfort in a hurry and a quick-fix method sometimes sounds pretty good…lose 10 pounds in two weeks, pop this pill and you’ll feel better, look younger, etc., etc. No wonder so many people end up in emergency rooms or on therapist’s couches!

In fact, there are a number of psychotherapists out there now who incorporate Buddhist thought into their practise. There is an excellent book called “Thoughts Without A Thinker” by Mark Epstein, M.D., on this practise.

When the larger life events happen like the loss of something or someone, and they do, it takes time to recover emotionally and to adjust. What we are really aiming for is to simply not make it worse for ourselves! Clinging, desire and aversion, all work against us when it comes to recovery.

My mantra in the last few weeks has been “this too shall pass”, because I know for a fact that it will. Every day I notice I am a little less fearful or overwhelmed. I expect the odd setback like a lost night of sleep or a moment of discouragement or depression. But we’ll get through.

And there is one more Noble Truth, the Fourth, which contains the Eightfold Path, the path to the end of suffering. If you’re with me this far in this small series, I’ll explore that in the next blog posting! Be there or be square 🙂

(PS…my writing here is really just skimming the surface of the Buddhist philosophy, it is not meant as an in-depth study by any means, but I will pass along some links to Buddhist websites at the end for those of you who are interested in studying it further)