These thoughts are not perfect, and I have decided to release them into the ether even in their imperfect state. They serve as the beginning of a conversation with you. Because none of us knows how long we will be here, so imperfect conversations are better than none...
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day…
- Rainier Maria Rilke
Our deepest human dilemma revolves around the fact that we've chosen to love mortal beings and that we ourselves are mortal. Pain is built into this proposition.
This dilemma brings out our need for epic truths. I personally have found strength by going to the creatives and the spirituals – the musicians, poets, artists, writers, philosophers, mystics - and nature itself - to help me know where I might be located in life's impermanent mystery. The creatives and mystics are our culture's experts in feeling and meaning-making – and truth-telling.
We count on someone like Emily Dickinson to tell us that dying is the wild night and the new road.
We count on Van Gogh's Wheat Field with Crows to help us see the possible landscape we may be encountering.
We count on Rainer Maria Rilke to tell us such things as this:
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell.
As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
This may not be good news to everyone, but it is good news to the one who is being battered.
We can go to the ancients who have sat with suffering with reflection -
like this great description of grief in Psalm 102:
My days vanish like smoke;
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
Because of my loud groaning
I am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.
For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
Yet, this is how Psalm 102 concludes:
They will perish, but you (meaning God) remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
But you remain the same.
The Buddhist teacher tells us that by sitting with impermanence, we gain insight that causes the very foundations of our suffering to crumble.
These conversations with impermanence, for me, include words like:
And so, intimate encounters with impermanence are the moments we are wholly unprepared for. Like a step into wildernesses unknown to us, it is an encounter with things absolutely foreign and terrifying. You fear what the route might require of you, what weather you will endure, what terrain and animal life you will encounter and so forth.
These kinds of wilderness experiences are seldom sought, desired or willingly participated in. This frontier might be better understood as more of an exile or diaspora – that word being from the Greek, meaning dispersion or to scatter. It has the essence of being expelled to travel, as if you were scattered to the wind. This may be the most involuntary frontier that we embark on. All frontier experiences require a great deal of creativity and improvisation whether we understand it this way or not. Especially early after loss we only see the darkest aspects, but as we travel farther or have experienced and reflected on multiple losses... we can observe that our encounters with loss are served well by creativity in addressing the problems to be solved, selves to be known, relationships to be explored.
Rainer Maria Rilke says:
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! -
powers and people -
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.
We may bristle at hearing this, but having faith in nights is a good word for the one wandering in the dark, isn't it?
We perceive of permanence, but it is often a somewhat artificial construct. Existence is more like a stream – a stream is not static, though our mind oft thinks in pictures, so we perceive of it as a static thing. Yet a stream swells and empties. Even the stars are not static even though our perception of them tends to be. Everything is moving to one degree or another, and this is a fundamental shift in our perception.
We form deep attachments – thinking them static, and yet they are far more dynamic than we often give them attention to.
The exile of impermanence often begins with resisting the exodus, the diaspora, the frontier. Later we are resigned to survive, to live into the story and trail and the path. This becomes the creative work that taps into that great epic truths of our lives, accessing it, becoming more acquainted with it on variant levels, shaping our understanding of it, becoming more articulate about it – the tale may begin with simple phrases: “I love,” “I ache,” “I hurt,” “I exist.” “I have not disappeared because of this tragedy.” This is the fundamental nugget of truth. “Nevertheless, I am here.”
I have come to call this The Great Nevertheless.
When we find ourselves unwillingly expelled out of our familiar encampments and forced into this exile... when we look behind us, we may see that the route that we came from no longer exists - as if it were completely swallowed by the elements. We are forced to keep migrating.
The encounter is with both exterior and interior wildernesses, of large psychologically untamed territories. We find within us large, frightening and intimate mysteries, interior frontiers, and we are expelled on a new trail, essentially alone.
Viewing loss as a frontier wilderness may seem counter-intuitive. We may have thought of frontiers as the exciting arena for conquering people and we may not see ourselves as able to subdue such a savage territory.
Yet, if one understands where you are – that you are in a wilderness terrain... if one has talked to another who has embarked on a wilderness... you can begin to infer what larger landscape is probable in contrast to only what is visable to your eye. We lose sight of the big, unfolding wave passing through all of our lives. In dealing with impermanence, there is a metta story and the metta story has to do with all of humankind's confrontation with impermanence. Impermanence is, essentially, the only universally shared human experience.
So there is an intimate view of one's own powerful story of the encounter with impermanence as a personal frontier or diaspora and then there is the metta or bird's eye story of humanity that is like a cartographers map or a field guide or a story about the path that we all have, are and will walk on.
If we could share a rich understanding of this metta phenomenon of impermanence with those who have yet to encounter the intimate experience of this kind of diaspora or frontier, novices might have opportunity for reflection and understanding of the metta story of impermanence and hold it as a hidden resource for when their unique and intimate experience of that smallest diaspora manifests in their lives.
Most of my contemporaries have had intentionally self-limiting experiences with impermanence. They distance themselves from understanding impermanence until they have it literally thrust upon them. A classmate has a death in the family and we chose not to visit. If we do pay our respects, we limit the interactions. In this way we have remained impoverished. We have socially distanced ourselves from opportunities for compassionate caring and reflection. So often our first experiences with impermanence are catastrophic and close – the ones we cannot evade.
At first we experience loss as direct, straight up loss – that I have lost this object of my deep affection, this intimate person. Later we can take a broader inventory of what this encounter with impermanence means – that the real losses are a sense of permanence, control, having, possession... that the things that I still possess and have not lost are my identity, my love, my meaning-making. I still have a relationship with the departed, it just looks very different now. We find ways to detach and new ways to attach. The physicality is gone. We start to access: What is permanent and what is impermanent? What is truly lost and what is misplaced by the confusion of this transition?
Evolving bonds have opportunity to manifest. For those with a belief in the natural world, you may understand that you have internalized your beloved. You have internalized memories and experiences of the departed, a younger time with the blossoming of a bond between you. By recalling these times that you have internalized, you are transported. The brain does not differentiate between active imagination and real events happening, you can rest for a while in the space of memory where the time with your departed still resides, and experience it. This is one reason why daydreaming is so important to humans, as well as being highly present in the moments around us - so that all the time, even in our old age, we have the ability to “travel” in our active imaginations and memories, even when the world around us and our bodies do not accomidate such happy adventures.
There is permanence within the impermanence. It rests in memory and imagination and spirit, and is different than our first, corporal understanding. Internalize your beloved. In this way you are not without access to the person you have lost through impermanence, it is just not in corporal form.
Moreso, should you have a spiritual belief about the person.... all the more you may have an active relationship with them regardless of their corporal presence in your life.
You may choose to engage in currently creating evolving bonds.
Things are not going by the western mythos - things are not going by the manual anymore. We encounter more provocative ways to work within the contingencies – just because things are not going according to the manual does not mean that we cannot create and manifest love. And this is the amazing part of the human testimony - that people do not fold up and die, but they continue to find their way – which begins to hint at the spiritual nature of our humanity.
Maybe not what your early idea of thriving was. But it is the deepest definition of thriving.
That hurt we embrace becomes joy.
Call it to your arms where it can change.
A silkworm eating leaves makes a cocoon.
Each of us weaves a chamber of leaves and sticks.
Like silkworms, we begin to exist as we disappear inside that room.
Without legs, we fly...
...Blue, and a cure for blues, sky in a small cage, badly hurt but flying...
The great secret of death,
and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this:
that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated,
death does not wound us without,
at the same time,
lifting us toward a more perfect understanding
of this being
and of ourselves.
- Rainier Maria Rilke
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.
- Rainier Maria Rilke
Our first encounters with impermanence – in western societal structure - are often not intimate encounters on a intimate, personal level. We experience loss not – so – close – in... we may send flowers or attend something or visit once but our lives largely remain untouched by this encounter with mortality and we deny and deflect it until it is unavoidable.
If you walk with grief, what will you learn from her?
If you sit with her, how will she tame you?
Must you find yourself caged?
You can escape her, she will not own you.
But she will be whispering her verses when you close your eyes.
You will look at your shadow and think you see a trace of her.
She may make of you a less-beautiful version of yourself.