By David Edwards
April Fool’s Day, 1999, and the heart specialist says to me, with the usual twinkle in his eye: ‘It’s not Mickey Mouse territory, but you’ll be okay.’
Reassuring words from a plumber standing over your sink, or a car mechanic from under the bonnet. But not from a pilot speaking from the cockpit at 37,000 feet, or a consultant talking about your heart. At that point, you know you’re in trouble. Or at least you think you’re in trouble. In fact you don’t know, but then you know you’re in trouble when you don’t know!
My problem was that, four years earlier, some unknown factor – perhaps genetic, perhaps environmental – had triggered an immune system over-reaction called sarcoidosis. This causes granulomas, protein deposits, to appear like scar tissue in various parts of the body – sometimes on the back of your arms, sometimes in your eyes, sometimes in your lungs. Sometimes, quite rarely, in your heart. And sometimes, even more rarely, in the section of the heart that carries the electrical signals that keep it beating. If enough lumps collect in the wrong place, the signals can be blocked. This is one of the causes of Sudden Death Syndrome in otherwise healthy people who may have no idea they even have an illness.
My ‘territory’, which was not ‘Mickey Mouse’, featured two lumps that had appeared right there on the electrical pathway – the doctor drew a little cartoon for me on the back of an envelope. Unbeknownst to me, an illness had been playing a one-sided game of Battleships with my body. And my ‘aircraft carrier’ had been hit amidships, twice!
It dawned on me that I could have died at any moment over the previous four years. I couldn’t decide if I’d been lucky or unlucky. It also occurred to me that, as the disease was still active, if (as I was told) ‘not aggressive or progressive’, I might yet drop down dead. One moment I might be here, the next moment I might be a slab of lifeless meat. This thought came to me quite often. It didn’t always feel very real. When it did feel real, actually possible, it was as if the universe had turned on me; as if life, nature, the world, had turned against me with terrible ferocity. I felt this most keenly at night.
When I left the hospital with orders to consume the maximum permissible dose of steroids in an attempt to switch off the immune reaction, halt the disease, and ensure no more damage was done, I felt as though I was falling. My life was divided between the time I went into the hospital and came out – everything before belonged to a different, safer world.
From A High Mountain Peak
In the aftermath of these moments, when I lost some of the youthful complacency that shields us from the reality that we really will die, I was hit by another shocking thought – this was the reality! It wasn’t that I was being miserable or deluded, that I would wake up and experience the same sense of invulnerability I had previously felt. The fear I felt of impending death was the truth of my situation, of everyone’s situation – we will all die! We could all die at any moment. It hit me with incredible force that everyone would have to face what I had to face, and far, far worse. But that seemed appalling. Even the people who were particularly sensitive, timid, nervous, who clung to their parents and loved ones and children – they would all be torn from everything they loved, from their very lives.
In Story for Stopping the Four Errors, the Buddhist sage Matrceta offers a stark analogy:
‘Should someone who has fallen from the peak of a very high mountain feel happy as they fall through the air heading toward destruction? Since they are running toward death from the time of their birth, how can sentient beings find happiness during the interval of life?’ (Quoted, Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Volume 1, Wisdom, 2004, p.332)
We are all falling! How truly happy, in conventional terms, can anyone be expected to be when they are falling in this way? We all remember the footage from the September 11 attacks of people throwing themselves from the upper floors of the World Trade Centre. The mind reeled at the suffering that forced that action upon them. And what level of happiness do we imagine would have been achievable, in such a situation, on the way down?
The question seems outrageous, disrespectful. And yet this, amazingly, is the situation we are all in. Though protected by denial, we are all falling. In some ways we are actually in a worse situation than the September 11 jumpers – they were falling towards death. We are falling towards old age, sickness, and then death. We are falling towards the gradual loss of loved ones, of family and friends who are also falling.
The sinking feeling of the fall is always with us on some level. When we visit loved ones and say goodbye there is a sense that it is a rehearsal for the final parting, the last goodbye. Our hearts sink into our stomachs, we hold onto our loved ones and move away. We choose to move away. But we know we will have to move away, without choice, one day. And then we ask ourselves what we will do when they’re not there. Once again, we have a sense of falling in a universe that, as children, seemed so permanently full of ‘us’ – me, my, mine, ours – but which will one day be completely empty of ‘us’. That seems extraordinary!
We look at our relatives, at ourselves, and see that we are all growing older, greyer, more vulnerable. We are like airliners taking off every day packed full of passengers yearning from their very hearts for happiness, all desperate to avoid suffering and unhappiness, all clinging onto their seats. And every day our rivets are looser, our engines leakier, our control cables a little more frayed. When one of these beloved airliners crashes it is a disaster for us, too. Our happiness is dependent on the weakest part in all the many parts in all the many airliners we love (and we’re told that a Boeing 777 has not less than 3 million different parts!)
As Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche said so well:
‘What an unfortunate situation beings are in!’
Our Nothing Who Art In Nothing
We seek distraction in pleasures, experiences, possessions. But death renders it all meaningless – of what comfort can these things really be when we are falling ‘from the peak of a very high mountain’?
Or we try to fill our sense of emptiness with a feeling that we are ‘somebody’ in the eyes of others who are also falling, disappearing. We build houses of business cards, of dissident books. We live as though we depend on the positive opinion of others like oxygen. Millions of people write millions of opinions, comments and reviews across the internet in the hope that their words will matter to someone, will provoke some positive reaction or comment. But what does it matter, as we fall, if we have 1,000, 10,000 or 1 million Twitter ‘followers’?
Is the fact of the fall, then, all-conquering? Are we doomed to live in the perpetual twilight of futility and despair? Towards the end of his short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Ernest Hemingway describes a Spanish waiter who appears to live that way. The waiter’s version of The Lord’s Prayer is strangely familiar:
‘What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada [nothing and more nothing] y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.’ (Hemingway, ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’)
In the ordinary way of things, nothing survives the fall to destruction – everything is ‘nothing and more nothing’. This is the great emptiness that haunts the heart of every achievement. To fail is to suffer the agony of frustration and regret, of course. But to succeed is to eliminate all the plans, hopes and distractions that obstruct our perception of the great nothingness. As Hemingway wrote, some live in it and never feel it. But it is hard not to feel it when there is nothing left to aim for. This is the surprise waiting at the summit of ambition.
But there is a counterintuitive solution. The Indian mystic Osho said:
‘There are only two types of people in the world: those who try to stuff their inner emptiness, and those very rare precious beings who try to see the inner emptiness. Those who try to stuff it remain empty, frustrated. They go on collecting garbage; their whole life is futile and fruitless. Only the other kind, the very precious people who try to look into their inner emptiness without any desire to stuff it, become meditators.
‘Meditation is looking into your emptiness, welcoming it, enjoying it, being one with it, with no desire to fill it – there is no need, because it is already full. It looks empty because you don’t have the right way of seeing it. You see it through the mind; that is the wrong way. If you put the mind aside and look into your emptiness, it has tremendous beauty, it is divine, it is overflowing with joy. Nothing else is needed.’ (Osho, The Book Of Wisdom, Osho International, 2009)
We cannot escape our fear and emptiness as we fall, but we can plunge deeply into them, observe them, feel them, witness them. The claim of the mystical alchemists throughout the ages has been that it is this, and only this, that has the power to transform the lead of despair into the gold of liberation and bliss.
These enlightened alchemists rebel, above all, against our tendency to escape from the reality of our own experience. The remarkable fact is that we know almost nothing about our anxiety, sadness and emptiness because our first impulse, always, is to escape, deny or destroy them. We call this ‘solving problems’. Our society offers a limitless supply of such ‘solutions’. A vast industry has developed even to medicate us against our own emotions with powerful, and sometimes dangerous, psychotropic drugs.
Psychologists urge us to wage war on our emotions. Bookshops are full of titles like: ‘Beat Depression and Reclaim Your Life’, ‘Beating Anger’, ‘Controlling Your Emotions: Before They Control You’, ’10 Steps to Conquer Jealousy’. In classic Western style, we are told to fight nature, conquer it. We seek tranquillity by pitting one part of our mind against another part. It is a recipe for civil war, not peace.
Rarely do we approach our psychological life with curiosity, viewing our painful emotions as natural phenomena to be investigated with respect and care. When we stop escaping and instead look deeply, all is not as it seems. In fact bliss is found to be hidden in the last place we expected to find it.
For example, in discussing the development of compassion – through the practice of imaginatively taking and absorbing the suffering of others into ourselves – the great Indian sage Atisha said:
‘Begin the development of taking with yourself.’
Atisha meant that we should first gain deeper experience of our own suffering. Compassion is a trembling of the heart based on an awareness of shared suffering. The Buddha asked of some forest hunters:
‘Why do you commit such dreadful acts upon deer? Your eyes are similar to the eyes of a young deer. When the deer are startled, they look about with revolving eyeballs. Should you not therefore have compassion for those deer?’ (Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.157)
Our eyes are similar to their eyes. We recognise the agony of fear in them. Our hearts tremble, resonate, in recognition of our shared awareness, shared suffering, shared Being.
But how can we feel compassion for others when we rush to escape from the slightest suffering in ourselves, when we are anaesthetised against fear and sadness by a thousand high-tech ‘solutions’? To be protected from all suffering is to be numb to the suffering of others, with untold consequences for our own well-being.
Instead, we can stop escaping. We can sit still and observe, watch and witness our suffering – we can feel it deeply, carefully. The compassion that emerges from this self-awareness is deeply rooted. And the irony – again, counterintuitive – is that a deeper appreciation of the suffering of others diminishes the perceived seriousness of our own suffering. Ironically, a compassionate heart can come to be free of the feverish torments that afflict the self-obsessed heart. But compassion must be rooted in our own authentic experience of suffering, not in mere ideas about suffering. This is vital self-awareness, not toxic self-obsession.
There is another unexpected result of not escaping. When we sit and simply observe our fear of death, sadness, emptiness, we are faced with the undeniable awareness that we, the observer, are certainly not the emotion we are watching. The observer and the observed cannot be the same phenomenon.
This is important because we fall into such acute despair precisely because we believe ‘I am desperate’, ‘I am in despair’, ‘I am depressed.’ Observing our emotions gradually teaches us (it is a slow process) that these are misperceptions. It is not that ‘I am sad.’ Rather: ‘There is sadness. I am watching, observing sadness.’ The sadness is separate from the witnessing ‘I’.
As this understanding takes hold through consistent practice – as the separation becomes apparent, undeniable – a gap opens between us and the emotions with which we have always identified. This disidentification is a great liberation. The result is blissful.
Chuang Tzu tells the story of a man running from his shadow:
‘There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps, that he determined to get rid of both.
‘The method he hit upon was to run away from them. So he got up and ran.
‘But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up without the slightest difficulty…
‘He failed to realise that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.’ (Osho, When The Shoe Fits, Rebel Publishing, 1997, pp.68-69)
The ‘shadow’ is suffering. The ‘shade’ and the ‘sitting still’ refer to meditation, to observing and experiencing our thoughts and emotions without trying to ‘solve’ them. We can’t ‘solve’ the anxiety that comes from falling from a high mountain. We can come to know that we and the anxiety are separate.
Note: After resorting to steroids – and traditional Chinese acupuncture – all signs of the illness disappeared from my heart with no damage done. I am, though, still falling.
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