“The breath is moving, but that which knows the breath is not moving.”
It was in the newspaper today; Kerry committed suicide last week. Beautiful, generous, kind, talented, openhearted Kerry fell under the load of a life too much. We reel in loss and grief, confusion and questions. We contemplate together the immense violence of it all, the boundless mystery: this path of life and death that we all wander. I’ve suggested to my friend that he not think too much, that he release the brain’s kind efforts to explain or understand. We cannot. Any explanation or description would be too little, too small. The causes and conditions – stretching far back into time – are infinite and not for us mere mortals to know. There is just sorrow. Regret. Some anger as we stoop to pick up the many broken pieces. There is just the hurt made all the more searing by the deep love in which she was – and is – held.
How are we to be with this? The poet Yeats, speaking in the wreckage of World War I, tells us “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Indeed. These days, we seem to be surrounded by wreckage: ISIS, Ferguson, Ebola, Gaza, climate change, the US Congress. Things are not working – at least not the way my thinking mind thinks they should. How are we to, ourselves, not be overwhelmed? The Buddha invites us to consider that at the heart of the problem is the very process of trying to establish a center. We try to hang on to a constructed universe that is inherently unreliable.
We are not in control. There is dukkha – suffering – in this imperfect, impermanent, ephemeral human life. We are not in control. The Buddha teaches: “Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change.” We are not in control. We know this – well, in the abstract at least. When it comes right down to it, we often object. We resist.
The Buddha understood. When Kisagotami approached him, distraught at the sudden loss of her beloved toddler son, she was deranged in her overwhelm. Refusing to accept that her son was truly dead, she had run frantically around her village, begging everyone she met for a medicine that would restore him and heal her grief. Finally she came to the Buddha. With great care and kindness, he offered healing for her delusion, not by esoteric teaching, or by instructing her in some behavior change, but by inviting her to investigate her direct experience. He instructed her to attempt to find a mustard seed from a home where no death had occurred. As she searched, she slowly came to her senses. She saw clearly the impersonal nature of her suffering. She was able to let go as she finally and deeply grasped the inevitability of death and loss for all beings without exception. She went on to ask the Buddha for teaching of what death is, what might lie behind and beyond death, and what in her, if anything, would not die.
The teachings and practices that the Buddha left us, over and over and in thousands of different ways, invite us to cultivate the capacity to be fully present with whatever arises in awareness. In the teachings, the Buddha invites us to develop, layer by deepening layer, the quality of awareness that is able to see the pleasures and pains of this human life – internal and external – with the clarity of a polished mirror, and only from that space to look to see what might be needed.
“Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance…He does not welcome the arisen gain, or rebel against the arisen loss. He does not welcome the arisen status, or rebel against the arisen disgrace. He does not welcome the arisen praise, or rebel against the arisen censure. He does not welcome the arisen pleasure, or rebel against the arisen pain. As he thus abandons welcoming & rebelling, he is released from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”
It is a tall order and at times, in our own suffering, it seems impossible, even cruel. That’s where our community comes in. When my focus narrows, like a Buddha, you can see me and hold the mirror of kind awareness when I am caught and in a jumble. Community is such a blessed gift. So we allow ourselves to know our experience, including the knowing of our inability, from time to time, to know that experience without judgment. We help each other, giving and receiving wise guidance when each of us, alone, is too tired or lost or confused. Together, we find our way.
And yet, sometimes, even together, we don’t find our way. Sometimes we crash and burn. Hard. Each of us has moments when we let go and become isolated and tangled in confusion, doubt and reactivity: our own brand of craziness. We are grateful that this particular moment is not (usually) broadcast on the evening news. It is, for each of us, part of being alive. So this, too, can be held in the spacious awareness that knows it all with clarity and infinite patience, both internally and externally, in the ongoing mystery of this human life.
So, blessings, dear Kerry. Each of us knows all too well how it is to fall apart, with a center that cannot hold. May your guides and angels nourish you on. May we cherish the deep gifts you have given us and be ennobled by your courage in the face of such suffering. May we allow our own grief and confusion and may we all, together, in time, come to the final healing that is full awakening.