Category Archives: death

Happy New Year

It’s 10:55pm, December 31, 2015. As I await the New Year’s arrival, I am reminded of something I wrote 6 years ago. Wanted to share it with you:

December 31st has become for me, perhaps because I am in early afternoon of life (around 2:16pm according to current statistics), no longer a time for celebration but a time of sadness and withdrawal; a time when I want to shut the office door and listen to music with headphones so that the sounds of visiting family and everyday life are drowned out; a time of funerary grief to be experienced while all those around me are making merry and doing whatever they can to avoid that very same experience. But for what am I grieving? There is nothing specific on which I can put a finger or at which I can shake a stick that accounts for my feelings – no rueing of things done or not done or left undone;  no remorse for failed New Year’s Resolutions, as I tend to avoid making them in the first place. The strongest aspect of my grieving is an aloneness, but it is an aloneness with which I find myself becoming more and more comfortable as the seconds tick by and about which I tend to joke with others though few of them take it with the seriousness it deserves, and yet, it is aloneness, nonetheless, and so is, as if by definition, a lonely feeling which is only heightened by the jovial group of family and friends amid a crowd of cheerfully shouting strangers as we await the ringing in of the new year. The loneliness peaks at 12:01am as I glance at my phone to see no emails, no text messages, no missed calls, no voice mails bearing “Happy New Year!!” while around me all are toasting and tasting and kissing. Of course, I am not sending out any texts or emails nor making any calls but that is not the, perhaps rationalized, point which is, in fact, the fact that, regardless of how I perceive all the people whose names and contact info are entered into my address book, not one of them perceives me as worthy, in whatever sense one would measure worthiness for inclusion in such a broadcast, of stopping at my entry as they scroll down from A to Z adding 10 Joe’s and 20 Jane’s and 30 John’s to the To: field of a message which, they hope, will be the first to arrive after 11:59:59pm and so will be the first of many New Year’s greetings and, therefore, in some ultimately inconsequential way, the most important. So, I am surrounded by people both close and far and yet, in a sense, alone and experiencing the loneliness but that is not, at the heart of it, the cause of my grief but most likely a co-symptom. Yes, the grief and loneliness I feel evoke the ambiance of a funeral because they are, in all respects, also engendered by death. All around outside there is death from the brown, frosted ground to the leafless trees to the cold, gray skies to the short days whose sure and steady lengthening is still too subtle to be noticed. But more poignant for me is what is and what is not dying within for this journey on which I have embarked, or rather on which I was forced, being abducted from my bed in the middle of the night and in the middle of dreaming, is one of embracing multiple deaths rather than one of eschewing all death, especially one’s own. Some things are as black and white as Jesus’ statement, “You are either for me or against me,” for something must die as surely as something must be born and if a tiny bit of the ego part of “I” does not die then a little bit of the imago Dei part of “I” must cross the river, travel out of reach; a little bit more of my Self unavailable, inaccessible, that is to say, for all intents and purposes, dead. So, the grief I feel on this auspicious and, yet, at the same time inauspicious night is the inevitable mourning the loss of those parts of me I knew so well and those parts of me I never knew at all and, now, never shall.

Egocide: an update

iStock_000002243886XSmall(For background on egocide, check out this post.)

The oddest thought crossed my mind the other day. I was driving on the highway, listening to music (which I rarely do) and the thought crossed my mind: “I am happy.” Now this may not seem like an odd thought to many of you but, believe me, it definitely is one of the oddest thoughts I’ve had in the last five years.

Now, I pause here for a moment or two because I’ve learned a lesson about talking about how good things are. Take my allergies, for instance.

I’ve had allergies all my life and everywhere I’ve lived. About five years ago, I went to a Chinese herbalist who was very successful in treating them. However, no matter how long I am allergy free, if I talk to someone about how good I feel the very next day I have a massive allergy attack. It never fails. I seem to live in that middle zone of “even Steven.” I get a little extra money and without fail I have an unexpected bill. I have a great week at work and am extremely productive and the next week I’m useless. It never fails.

So, with great hesitation and much knocking on wood I continue with my story.

As I was saying, the thought entered my mind: “I am happy.” This was such a strange thought to have that it really took me by surprise. I began trying to figure out how I could possibly have had such a thought. Here’s what I came up with:

As I mentioned in my previous post on egocide, I’ve been thinking that “computer guy Ken” is the part of my ego that must die. And it seemed that the Universe agreed with me because I’ve had only a handful of working hours the past few months. The Universe, however, was not providing an alternate revenue source which, in my current position, is really quite crucial to my longevity. So, as you can imagine, I was quite discouraged and disillusioned with the whole “the Universe will provide” mantra.

Upon further contemplation, I realized that I had made some decisions recently which had great bearing on the question at hand. For a long time now:

  • I have been living a life defined by depression.
  • All my actions and reactions have been modulated by the idea that, “I have depression.”
  • I monitored myself so that I did not appear too happy because if I appeared happy then people would not know that I suffered from depression.
  • I so lamented my life situation—work, relationships, lack of energy, &c.—that it was impossible for me to be other than sad and depressed because I was allowing external circumstances to dictate my emotional state.

In short, I was using my depression as a “scarlet letter A” (I guess a “blue letter D” would be more appropriate) and proudly bearing the stigma in front of the entire world.

Recently, however, I decided that

  • This attitude is extremely detrimental to my health and wellbeing
  • Who says I have to be depressed all the time?
  • I deserve to smile and laugh and I should allow myself to do both
  • Yeah, a lot of things suck right now but that doesn’t mean I can’t smile and laugh

So, almost unconsciously, I decided that my attitude needed to change. Drastically change. Well, that and I had to drink less. A LOT less.

When the thought “I am happy” crossed my mind the other day, and I gave it some thought, I realized that the ego I thought needed to die was not the ego that needed to die. “Computer guy Ken” was not the part of me that needed to die. Even though it’s the part I wanted desperately to get rid of, it was not the part that needed to die. What needed to die was the prevailing attitude I maintained about myself. And, guess what. After that “decision” was made, I found out that I am getting a semi-shit load of work in 2014. Since I’m no longer trying to kill off “computer guy Ken” this work is very welcome—I’ll be able to eat and put gas in my car!

The lesson learned here is that egocide is subtle; it’s not what you think it is.  I wanted a certain part of me to die but that wasn’t the part that needed to die. It took me quite a while to figure that out. Yet, once I did figure it out, other things seemed to fall into place. And that makes it difficult to talk and think about. When I read David Rosen’s description of his egocide and the account of Buckminster Fuller’s egocide it all sounded quite simple. Pick something and let it die. What could be easier? Well, it’s not easy. Not easy at all. My unconscious is far smarter and far more informed than is my ego. Yet it is my ego which does my thinking and it is my ego which wants to be in control and to survive. Getting my megalomaniacal ego to step aside and giving the unconscious free reign to decide what really needs to die takes time and patience and dedication. It takes the willingness to be surprised by and subservient to the unconscious.

But, if you remember that the unconscious really does have your best interests in mind, then it’s no different than following the direction of a mentor or spiritual leader. They don’t always tell us to do what we want to do and it’s oftentimes quite uncomfortable and disconcerting to follow their direction. But, in the end, we will see that their way was the better way.

Mental Burning: Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian Psychology

Dakini’s Warm BreathThe August 26th Dharma Quote of the Week from Shambhala.com was from Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown (on shambhala.com or amazon.com):

Examining the understanding of heat in Vajrayana gives insight into tantra’s somewhat different embrace of classical Buddhist imagery. From this perspective, the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives. It is the experiential dimension of the intensity of our obscurations, whether emotional, conceptual, or habitual. But rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods, it is important to allow the burning to occur during practice. Certainly in the foundational stages of the path we must learn not to become engulfed in the flames, to tame the wild mind and emotions, and to train ourselves to open further to experience. Finally, however, through Vajrayana practice under the guidance of a guru, the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.

In some respects, depression could be characterized as “mental burning.” The incessant and insidious rumination consumes our time, our energy, our mood, and threatens to literally destroy us. And, it is true that “the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives.” But is the answer to do whatever it takes to eliminate the rumination; extinguish the mental burning at all cost?

Both Tibetan dharma and Jungian psychology say no. “It is important to allow the burning to occur during practice” and Jung said, “depression should therefore be regarded as an unconscious compensation whose content must be made conscious if it is to be fully effective” 1. As with most things in life, eschewing the negative, the painful, the unwanted usually leads to more pain struggle, and sorrow. Ignoring the pain associated with a burst appendix has dire consequences. Treating headaches with pain relievers can result in the underlying cause getting worse and worse. The ultimate avoidance, I think, is that of death. We do the craziest shit to avoid even the appearance of death. But look at the results of too much cosmetic surgery, the toll on our minds and bodies from un-experienced grief, or the acts of a health-care system fostering and profiting from our outright detestation and absolute terror of death.

The key, of course, is to not “become engulfed in the flames” but to “train ourselves to open further to experience.” I think our main objection to this is that it just takes too damn long! It’s like work! I want a pill that I can take once a day which does it for me because I’m just too damn busy.

Now, I’m not criticizing, I’m empathizing. Since it takes me forever to get the simplest thing done, I often don’t feel that I have any time for self-work. This is not even in the same universe as easy. But if you’re in this for the self-knowledge and self-power and not for the painlessness of it all, there’s no other way. The promise is –from both Jung and the dharma–”the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.”

Jung would have the depressed individual let go of his conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious, where the exuberant power of imagination lies latent. Only the experience of soul. Only the discovery that I “have” a soul and can even “become” my soul offers any solution for the depressed condition. 2

In our modern culture we have forgotten–learned to ignore is perhaps more precise–the wisdom that our bodies and psyches possess. We try to stay awake longer and sleep less in order to be more productive. No wonder our bodies revolt and we get sick and overly fatigued and need more and more caffeine to keep going. Our bodies have a natural rhythm–the circadian rhythm–which governs the production and release of melatonin which is what makes us sleepy at night. The melatonin producer sits just above the optic nerve so a lessening of light triggers the release which means we get tired at night at not at mid-day. So, what do you think happens when you work at your computer until 2am or watch TV right before going to sleep or read in bed with a bright light? You are convincing your body that it’s not time to go to sleep.

Many years ago when I was living alone and working at home 95% of the time (I’d have one meeting a week in the office) I tried an experiment. I didn’t set an alarm clock. I didn’t pay much attention to the time. I went to bed when I was tired and got up when I woke up. The result was a pretty regular 8 hours of sleep at night and I felt the best I’d felt in years. I’ve always had trouble waking up in the morning (my parents would have to wake me up on Christmas Day!). The only downside was that my body wanted a 25-hour day, so my bedtime started getting later and later and soon I was gong to bed at 5am. This made it difficult to make my 11am meetings so I had to stop the experiment.

But the point is that the body does have a wisdom and does know what it needs and what it doesn’t. Our modern culture has all but eliminated our bodies’ having any input whatsoever into what we do. No wonder it revolts and breaks down! And, no wonder it often times refuses to respond to external stimuli “designed” to correct an imbalance. Of course I’m mainly referring to “drug cocktails” that some doctors give their patients–one drug trying to correct the harm resulting from another drug’s side effects and a third drug to correct the second and so on. Of course, science and medicine have made unimaginable progress in helping the body when the body alone isn’t enough. But we’ve moved too far to the side of science and medicine–we no longer give the body a chance. “My kid has a 100° temperature so I’ve got to give him Motrin to bring down the fever!” Well, no, you don’t. The body is fighting off something and raising the body temperature makes things move along more quickly. You are actually undermining the body’s efforts by medicating too quickly. Of course, if the temperature goes much higher then it is time to step in and help with medication.

This is the point that I take away from the dharma quote and the Jungian psychology quotes: we’ve become too one-sided; we want to circumvent anything we feel stands in our way of progress. But “rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods” we need to allow the flames to do their work. A balance point needs to be sought at which the flames are allowed to teach but not consume; a point at which we can “let go of [our] conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious” without becoming overwhelmed by it.

I am seeking this balance point but it’s an incredible struggle. Without medication my mood goes so deep that it is impossible to even think about doing anything. With the medication I have a little more energy, a little more focus but I often don’t feel like I’m making any progress. It seems to take so long to get done the things that must be done now that there’s no time and energy for anything else. I keep waiting for the “lesson” my depression is trying to teach me but it hasn’t come yet … or I’ve completely missed it. This blog definitely helps by giving me something to focus on. As I write these posts, I’m reminded of the work I need to do–to make time for–and I’m encouraged because I am focusing. And this, what I’m writing right now, in a way, IS the work.

Thank you for reading. I hope this work that I’m doing here can help or inspire–even just a little–someone else.

Notes:

  1. C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW vol 5, par 625
  2. Haule, John Ryan, ”Depression and Soul-Loss,” www.jrhaule.net

Egocide and suicide

egocide and suicideLately, I’ve been thinking about egocide. (Why does my autocorrect want to change that to “geocode”??) I’m at the end of my rope and climbing back up is not an option. I’ve got to change. Drastically change. Kill off the “Ken” I think I am and reinvent “Ken.” Killing off, or sacrificing, my concept of myself amounts to killing off my ego—egocide.

David Rosen, in his book Transforming Depression, describes egocide as “a symbolic killing of the ego that is experienced as ego death: a sacrifice of the ego to the Self, a higher principle.” Rosen went through this in his own life. “It was the ego-image [he] had of [himself] as a husband that was sacrificed. When [he] released that image, [he] found [he] could surrender to a higher power within [himself]—the Self.

The other day, as I was starting this post, I found a blog post about Buckminster Fuller’s egocide. The idea was that he would throw away his ego. He would not work for himself or for material gain but solely for the greater good. He trusted that his needs would be met. Apparently, trusting the universe to provide worked out pretty well for ol’ Bucky.

Then, I was watching the last episode of Top of the Lake (streaming on Netflix) and there was the following conversation between Robin, the protagonist, and GJ, a guru-type. Robin had just gotten some very bad news.

Robin: I don’t know how to keep living.

GJ: So, you’re on your knees? Good. Now die to yourself. To your idea of yourself. Everything you think you are, you’re not. What’s left? Find out. … Stop thinking.

Robin: I need to help Tui

GJ: You people all want to help someone. Help yourself first. Like the airplane. Put on your own mask first.

Robin: How do I help myself?

GJ: Why should I tell you when you don’t listen.

Robin: I’m listening.

GJ: No! All you hear are your own crazy thoughts like a river of shit on and on. See your thoughts for what they are. Stop your helping. Stop your planning. Give up. There is no way out. Not for others. Not for you.

Egocide is about death. And that’s why it is an alternative to suicide. When in a depression, there is no future and no past. Time doesn’t move. Therefore, nothing changes. I can’t envision a time when I wont be depressed. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t depressed. All I have is this moment. This overwhelming, oppressive moment. But things must change because they are intolerable as they are. If things can’t change with time then death is the only answer. Death is the only way to make things change. Something must die. If not the body then, perhaps, the ego can be a surrogate.

The real question is: what images of myself, exactly, do I need to sacrifice? I’ve been trying to let go of “Ken the computer guy” for a while but the problem is that he’s the only one making any money. But, perhaps it’s my feeling that way which is preventing all the other Ken’s from bringing home some bacon? Maybe there’s also the aspect of letting go of negative images—the “I’ll never be a real writer/painter.”

I don’t think there has to be something there to fill the gaping hole left by the sacrificed ego. That’s too much planning. If egocide is a surrogate for suicide then there can’t be a replacement already in the wings. Perhaps some people can transition from one stage to the next easily. They know in advance what they want to do before they get to the point of needing to terminate the old “them.” But, not everyone. I’ve known for a while now that something’s gotta change but I didn’t know what/how/when.

Well, I’ll keep you posted on what’s going on and how I see the imminent transformation shaping up. So, keep reading!

Growing old

CryingDid two things yesterday I haven’t done in a long time.

  1. I listened to Incomudro: Hymn to the Atman by Kansas
  2. I had a good, hard, loud cry.

This song is amazing—one of the best songs ever written. It has a great percussion solo (which, I think, rivals those by Neal Peart although it’s not as long as some of Peart’s) and the lyrics are incredible. This is how I listen to this song:

  1. I sit in a chair facing the speakers
  2. Turn the volume up to +10
  3. Put a piece of masking tape over the “0” and write a “1” on it so the volume goes “up to eleven”
  4. Sit back and feel like I’m in that old Maxell commercial (yes, I’m really old enough to remember it)

Maxell Tapes

This is a powerful song with a powerful message. It describes a feeling of peace and wholeness that I very much lack these days and so it’s easy to let myself cry listening to it. And today was a very good cry. Very cathartic. A screaming, agonizing, visceral cry.

Perhaps the strong effect the song had on me today was due to the other music I listened to. My goal was to do some cleaning and I decided to go against my usual modus operandi and listen to upbeat music. It worked quite well for a while. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are quite good bands to clean to. (Hmmm, I wonder if my father complex is showing just a bit?) But then I tried some bands that didn’t work so well because they reminded me of days gone by when my wife and I were very happy. (Note to self: I need to learn how to compartmentalize my feelings more effectively.) Then I spotted “Kansas” while flipping through my playlists and went for it.

Part of the “attraction” was the whole motif of “growing old.” Earlier today, I got upset at an inanimate object and kicked it wearing flip-flops so my right big toe hurts like the dickens and I now have a severe limp. My right arm aches with tendonitis. My eyes are getting worse. And so on. Combined with the cumulative effects of chronic stress, including muscle weakness and depression, I’m feeling quite ancient these days. I sometimes lament my aging body. My daughter (just turned 7) and I joke about it a lot—”My hip! My hip!” we whine as we limp around. (Although it is very nice to let the young’ins do the heavy lifting.)

But this is all part of growing old. And growing old is not just something to mourn. It’s also a celebration! For one, I’m getting closer to the end of my pain and suffering. For another, I’m really very glad that I don’t act quite as stupid as I did when I was younger.

It seems that as I age, the polar opposites become clearer and more pronounced. Aging gracefully is definitely a crash course in learning equanimity (or, at least, having equanimity shoved down your throat). Unless, of course, you want to fight it tooth and nail.

Anyway, it was really good to “let it all out” as they say. I will probably be doing that again, soon. In the meantime, I’m going to work on “holding the tension of the opposites” and building my equanimity.

Wish me luck!

 

Meaning in death

Kiss of Death by Jaume Barba

By Pilar (originally posted to Flickr as the perfect kiss) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My first experience with death was my pet turtle. Or maybe it was my grandfather. I can’t remember.

Anyway, one morning my turtle was lying in its plastic day spa. Its head hanging out farther than seemed physically possible! Pretty obvious what was going on there.

At my grandfather’s viewing, I remember thinking “there’s no way he’s all in there.” The casket was obviously too short. Even a 5 year old could see that. Or maybe I was 7. Or 10. I can’t remember. Anyway, they must have chopped off his legs. Or bent them backwards. Or something. I mean, his top half looked just fine.

There was a blanket covering his lower legs and feet. Or at least where his feet should have been. I mean, a blanket? Really? I just couldn’t resist. I moved in and started to lift the blanket. Just to take a peek.

My mom pulled me away. She didn’t want me to get so close.

Death.

We Americans have a strange relationship with death. Death’s all around us.

Flies on the window sill.
Baby birds falling out of trees.
The roses that say “I love you” and are then casually thrown into the trash.

We use a lot of things for a short time and then throw them away.

Batteries
Plastic bags, paper bags
Cameras
Tampons
Condoms
People

Our grandparents die.
Or the family pet.

But we don’t deal with it.
With death.

We flush them down the toilet or we send them to a “farm” where they can run free — pets, not grandparents.

We avoid
deny
rage, I mean, rage against the dying of the light.

Get plastic surgery so we don’t look like we’re nearing death.
Take Viagra so we don’t fuck like we’re nearing death.
At funerals we laugh and joke so we don’t even feel like we’re near death.
We tell our sons “don’t cry” when their mothers die
then we put a time limit on how long we’re allowed to grieve.

My daughter has a book called Everyone Poops.
There should be a book that is mandatory for everyone over 35 called Everyone Dies.

Death has GOT to be important.Why else would we expend so much time, energy, and money making it go away? Why are “thoughts of suicide” and the “ideation of death” common expressions of depression? Hell, we use analytical terms to hide from death even when that’s exactly what we’re talking about!

Why is it that when I cannot even think about life, it is death that holds my attention? Might it be that death is demanding equal time? Might it be that there is meaning in death as well as life?

But we’ll never discover the meaning in death until we look it square in the eyes and begin a conversation with it. Get to know it. Try to understand it rather than ignore it. Perhaps we need to hear more from the people who think about it, roll it over in their minds, fixate on it. Perhaps we need to hear from the ones who are, in their own way, trying to come to terms with death in their own lives — those with depression. Who else is more qualified to give an expert opinion?