the sunnyside upside to death

Writing and posting that about the sunnyside up show brought to mind this article reprinted in part in The Week magazine, which reminds us that our online life – emails to tweets, posts to updates to comments – will be with the rest of the world long after we’re dead. And anyone looking in to you for any reason (curious relatives or anyone else if you’re somehow famous) will find that and only that. You, will not be present there, but this pile of information stuff will be. And they’ll draw conclusions on whatever portion they read, listen to or view. That’s it. That’s you.

I’ve heard it said that being remembered in a positive way is heaven, afterlife and . You continue then to affect life in a positive manner. You can do good long after you’re long gone.

But the post is so quickly drawn, obtuse and mostly stupid. What would anyone draw from that in a hundred years? Jeez.

Unless of course there actually is a right wing conspiracy on the set and among the Sunnyside Up Show cast replete with subliminal messages and imprisoned hosts, and then i’ll be lauded a hero and who would believe me at that point that it was all a coincidence? That’s when things will get complicated. It’s a good thing I’ll be dead.

Here comes the sun

It’s 3 am on the shortest day of the year and I’m having the sort of anxiety reserved for 3 am on the shortest day of the year at this latitude where the shortest day of the year is to put it succinctly – very, very short. Darkness surrounds us for sixteen or so hours of the 24 we got. It’s anxiety based on any tiny thing it decides to direct its attention to, and it keeps one awake, fidgeting, worrying, wondering why being I’m blessed with so much, I can have this daunting sense of impending doom. I’ve obviously blown my life, people hate me, I’m horrible at my job; I mean, look at me, it’s 3 am and I can’t even sleep, for the love of God (who also hates me).

I should be celebrating, right? It’s the winter solstice! The light is coming! Bright days ahead! In a few months we’ll have 10, 12, 14, then 16+ hours of sunshiny daylight to bask in. Our anxiety will be relegated to serious matters or mental illness, not this general malaise, this pointless worry. The seasons cycle and it all repeats. I can remember similar nights last year and the year before and pretty much everyone before that throughout my adult life. I don’t recall anxiety like this in my younger days. Worry, certainly, but not anxiety. That came on as if it were age-related, like a bad back, thinning hair or crow’s feet.

Maybe it’s based on complexity. My life has become ever more complex over the years and so maybe this is just my mind knowing there is so much to think about that it kind of just crashes a bit like an overwhelmed computer. All day long, I tend to whatever presents itself: getting the kids ready for school, myself to work, all that entails, dinner and so on. The middle of the night is empty of all that and a great opportunity for the mind to take off down some dark, creepy path. Running from another complex day that is sure to come before the sun rises. We go to bed in the dark and get up in the dark.

It’s silly, really. These are the moments I remember my buddy Colin fighting and then losing his life to leukemia. What he would give to have a sleepless night in the home of his beautiful wife and two beautiful kids.

What he would say to me right now I can’t even imagine, but something along the lines of stop whining! It’s the winter solstice! It’s only going to get lighter now!

He’s right. I’m fine. I’m going back to bed. Thanks, Colin.

Sweetness and Light

Wake up at 5 am and gaze upon one of our little creations who had come into our bed in the night. Big two-year-old head, thin neck and skinny shoulders, breathing softly next to me. A small miracle with big attitude, quiet now, practically purring. I slip out of bed and into the morning on a walking meditation. It is one of those mornings after a stormy night where blue skies lead to a bank of black clouds to the east just covering the rising sun, giving a sense of great anticipation for the day ahead. Words like “creation” and “glorious” keep coming into my head as I try to concentrate on my body and breathing.

I remember how large a world “creation” was to a little boy sitting in Sunday school. “God in his Creation” was like a commandment in itself. The start and finish of all we knew. But I was a decidedly skeptical kid and it never took – that version of the universe. It wasn’t long before “creation” seemed a tiny word in relation to my very slow comprehension of a more scientific view of how the Universe unfolded. Creation by some deity in six days seemed tiny and suspiciously fictionalized up against 13 billion years of the incomprehensibly complex and unfolding of our, again, incomprehensibly large universe. The simplicity of the former was a great bore in light of the great mysteries of the latter.

Bill Bryson does a wonderful job of describing for lay people those mysteries in his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” I have the audio book and particularly enjoy his voice. He’s obviously brilliant and with a great sense of humor. Worth it for anyone interested in how science and the scientists of note have over time helped us understand and define the world in which we life.

Walking around Lake Como I am treated to one of those moments when the sun, still covered by the black clouds, manages to cascade some light over the edge. You’ve seen in depicted in hundreds of paintings over the years. It was often used to signify “God in His Heaven” and it does a great job especially in light of the fact that the sun was one of our earliest gods and probably the one that makes the most sense. It gives us life, keeps us alive under its gaze, and is there when we die. Our ancestors, before understanding much about the firmament, could only have wondered at its heat, where it goes every night, why it sometimes hides behind great black clouds that rain and throw lightening down upon us, why every so often, it obscures itself with a disk in the middle of the day. God in his Heaven, indeed.

Now I will go upstairs to awaken them little creations to a new and gorgeous day. We like to open the shades and say, “Look! It’s another day full of possibilities!” And we like to give each other loads and loads of ever-changing nicknames. Today I am going to call ’em Sweetness and Light.

the practice of non-practice

The Buddha said, “My Dharma is the practice of non-practice.” And when I’m in the deepest meditative state, I can almost achieve that. I’m like the proverbial pebble at the bottom of the river. All things rush by and I am still, quiet, empty of all the distractions, frustrations and obsessions of the so-called real world. I practice and when I succeed I am, as he said, not practicing anything. I’m just being, being a part of everything else, deeply present and aware, but unaffected in any way. It is here that I can truly rest and I can heal the wounds of 46 years of mostly unmindful living.

And then I go back into the world and start all over. So be it. I’m no Buddha, but I’m trying, and if I slingshot back and forth from booze to Buddha and back, so be that, too. The effort is to make it effortless to stay here, now, mindful and kind.

fear in meditation

In a discussion at the end of his book A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, Paramananda writes about maintaining your practice that  “…meditation is a challenge to the way we see ourselves. In particular, it challenges us to take fuller responsibility for our lives. It challenges us to acknowledge that we are responsible for how we feel, and for the way in which we lead our life.”

It is a point that strikes me very profoundly right now. I notice that along with the joys I feel from my practice, I also have some real anxiety around it. I sense that I am letting go of something safe, albeit dull, and having to reach forward to something entirely new and clear, but “out there” and unknown. I rationally want this new mindfulness and clarity but know that there’s comfort in the old. He goes on:

“We are very attached to our version of the world, and it might well be difficult for us to give up the views and prejudices we have. Our sense of who we are is closely bound up in the way we see things, and it would be unrealistic to think that we can effortlessly give up views that have been conditioning us – essentially creating us – over many years. While we might like the idea of breaking out of the limiting ways we look at our lives, in reality it is frightening to give them up.”

I came across all of this smack dab in the middle of those anxieties and it was quite heartening. I was concerned that I didn’t get it or was doing something wrong. We have this misconception that meditation is all bliss and happiness when in fact it is often very much the opposite.

We are encouraged to meditate upon our own suffering and the suffering of others to better understand the world and ourselves. But looking deeply into ourselves is far from easy and especially in the culture in which we live. What you see is never perfect and often ugly – and if that is not what you see, you are not looking closely enough, or you’re already a Buddha or a Saint. We are flawed creatures, yes, but with great ability to correct those flaws.

And once you look and really see, and if you continue the practice, you’ll never return to your former self. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the first few pages of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, “Once the door of awareness has been opened, you cannot close it.”

That, to me, is profound, beautiful, and not a little freaky.

depth and intensity

“A popular misconception is that depth of experience is something to do with intensity of experience. …It is only on the foundation of a clear, relatively integrated mind that experience will penetrate deeply.”

This from A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation by Paramananda.

I find that arc of thought particularly resonant for me now. It is such a part of American culture, youth culture, as well as the culture, and also personal intense engagement, of drugs and alcohol. We tend toward the intense, exciting, and anything that will provide the short adrenaline rush, then confuse that experience with that which is profound.

I think back to my childhood and Evil Knievel, a man who spent months between jumps doing who knows what, and then with great fanfare and long-drawn-out hype, jumped a motorcycle over a line of buses. That – then – was considered something to be praised, looked up to, and even emulated with a bike, a wooden jump and a couple of the neighbor kids.

Entertainment is like that as well. The thrills we get at a horror or suspense flick, the tears from the jerker, the laughs from comedies, rocking out to Foghat live! tantalize us certainly, sometimes blow our minds, but ultimately it dissipate and leave us depth-wise exactly where we were. We toss words like brilliant around – “Mad Men is brilliant!” It’s really good television and it’s entertaining, but brilliant, brilliant might be reserved for the reflection of a mountain on a still lake, the profundity of which is lost on only the most jaded or empty of souls – while there’s no clear agreement on what’s brilliant on HBO right now.

That is not to say that we should look down on those experiences. On the contrary, they’re fantastic, we enjoy them, we come out the other side feeling rejuvenated and thrilled and, in the very short run, altered ever so slightly.

But the truth of the matter all of those experiences while providing a brief intense, adrenaline rush are truly shallow to the person, to the soul. Void of depth.

The more I drink, the shorter the intensity lasts, until another drink is added upon that one in a desperate and failed attempt to repeat the intensity, and so on. The moments of bleary-eyed brilliance become fewer and farther between. The trip is over sooner and I don’t travel nearly as far as I once did – or think I did.

Clarity of mind goes deep and lasts. It opens us up to transcendent understanding that will never come from a bottle, a smoke or snort, all of which ultimately act against it.