Burning Among Stars In The Night – Pain As A Portal

I travelled with my dad – ‘H’, as we called him – in the back seat of the car. It was the same way we’d driven a million times: to Tesco, to drop me off at the station, to drop me off at the airport, to drive up the M25 to my sister’s at Christmas. It was a suitably cold, drizzly afternoon, our destination emptied of people by rain and virus.

Our tiny group trudged through the rain to a large oak tree, the designated spot. The whole place appeared to have been designed by computer. I took the plastic lid off the long cardboard tube, which was both disturbingly heavy and disturbingly light. I broke the paper seal and there was ‘H’ – as fine as flour, as white as rice – and I poured him in pluming, wind-blown arcs across the grass. There was a stiff breeze and I had to take care to avoid him being blown back over my new trainers.

Out of everything connected to my dad’s death, this was the most grotesque – that we found ourselves acting and speaking as though living, breathing, vibrant, chuckling, grumpy, boozy, Sudoku-filling, paper industry prodigy ‘H’ had become lifeless white ash sinking in semi-circular lines into cold wet grass on a grey September day.

Believing in Father Christmas is one thing, but to believe that a person is a pile of ash who somehow continues in that form! And yet we actually said things like, ‘He’ll be happy here under this oak tree’, and ‘Would you like to go and visit “H” under his tree?’

Family and friends seem to find nothing controversial in the frequently expressed hope, ‘May he rest in peace’. And yet, it implies doubt about the outcome – the suggestion, clearly, is that our loved one might not ‘rest in peace’. The implication: they might become ‘a restless spirit’ – a ghost, no less; perhaps a zombie! In our age of (selective) political correctness, no-one finds this offensive.

Similarly, many of us seem to feel obligated to say, ‘He passed’. Where to, ‘the other side’? We’re back among the ghosts! When a soap bubble bursts, did it ‘pass’, or did it cease to exist? Or we say, ‘He passed away’, to persuade ourselves that he is not dead at all, not even ‘resting’, but has embarked on a mysterious journey, like Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. It doesn’t help to be confronted by these delusions of mass pathology and denial at a time when the mind is already reeling.

On the other hand, it did help to know that my dad would have perceived the whole ash-scattering event as risible. I remember him saying something like:

‘I don’t give a hoot what you do with me when I’m gone, I won’t be there!’

Indeed, even without the virus, it would have been difficult to have any kind of church ‘service’ knowing that the person being ‘honoured’ would have considered every aspect of the process a meaningless (except expensive!) farce exploiting minds less rational than his own. After the cremation, we had played a selection of his favourite songs and had a drink. Did it ‘honour the dead’ to play, ‘It’s Not Unusual’, by fellow Welshman Tom Jones?

That night, looking up at the ceiling in the pitch black of the room where he had died, I didn’t ‘honour’ my dad, because I don’t really know what that means, or why it’s relevant, in reference to the death of a loved one. I did find myself reflecting on Ernest Hemingway’s version of honour and heroism, of ‘grace under pressure’ – an old fisherman battling sharks to save his prize catch; a civil war volunteer fighting a suicidal rear-guard action to save his comrades. It seemed to me that real heroism is much more mundane.

Real heroism is trundling to and from Tesco every day, for years, in a little red car to do the shopping when you were once a shooting executive star. It’s falling and cutting yourself horribly because your 87-year-old skin is so thin, and just getting up and carrying on. It’s carrying the empty bottles and rubbish down a flight of stone steps day after day because it has to be done, even though you’ve fallen many times in the house and falling down the steps would be fatal. It’s losing every last one of your friends, until you are the longest-surviving member of your local club, and the village is empty of familiar faces, and just carrying on. Heroism is sitting on a sofa, day after day, watching daytime TV, because there’s not much else you can do, when you don’t believe there’s much point to anything anyway because you’re an atheist, and just carrying on.

Intermission: ‘I Just Gave Away Everyone’

In The New York Times Magazine, literary critic Parul Sehgal discussed an intriguing comment made by author Jenny Offill:

‘Offill has been interested in Buddhism since college and maintains an occasional zazen practice. One day she came home from meditation and broke down while taking a shower. How could she square nonattachment – the awareness of transitory life, the acceptance that everything can be taken from her – with her love for her daughter? “It was a knee-buckling kind of moment,” she told me. “I just remember thinking: Not her. Not her. I just gave away everyone. I gave away everyone at that moment.” She called Millet, crying. Her friend told her to remember that Buddhism is a religion made by men, but mother love is even more ancient and has always been the strongest force in the world.’

The basic conclusion, then: ‘mother love’, which is ‘more ancient’ than Buddhism, a ‘religion made by men’, need not, should not, or perhaps cannot, be ‘given away’. So ‘nonattachment’ should not include giving up ‘mother love’, which ‘has always been the strongest force in the world’.

Has Buddhism been ‘made by men’? The whole point about Buddha’s enlightenment is that all sense of self as a person, as a man, vanished completely. As with all enlightened beings, Buddha was an empty space of pure, ungendered awareness. His discoveries often have been distorted by Buddhism but, in essence, they remain identical to those of all other enlightened mystics, including women such as Rabiya al-Adabiya, Lalla and Mallibai. Incidentally, I am not a Buddhist. In my view, to follow anyone or any pre-digested doctrine is to ignore Buddha’s key advice expressed in his last words before he died: ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’

This comment from Offill is particularly telling:

‘I just remember thinking: Not her. Not her. I just gave away everyone.’

This repeats the classic Western misconception that ‘nonattachment’ is an act of will, a mental decision, something ‘I’ do: ‘I just gave away everyone.’

So what is nonattachment? When Sehgal describes it as ‘the awareness of transitory life, the acceptance that everything can be taken from her’, she is actually describing awareness of impermanence, not nonattachment. Many of us are keenly aware of the transitoriness of life and those we love, but remain deeply attached to both.

The suggestion being made in the article is that we can contemplate this attachment, make a bold decision, after which we can declare: ‘I just gave away everyone.’ The misunderstanding becomes clear when we focus on the conspicuous presence of the ‘I’ in that sentence.

The ‘I’ is the ego. The ego, the sense of who ‘I’ am, is an illusion made up of a fuzzy ball of reflections that we receive from thousands of people-mirrors: parents, siblings, friends, strangers. They say:

‘You have beautiful eyes’, ‘You’re not academic’, ‘You’re funny’, ‘You’re showing off’, ‘You’re very kind’, ‘You’re so selfish’, ‘You write well’, ‘Your singing is awful!’, and so on.

Out of this mass of reflections, we form a very approximate, contradictory sense of ‘me’.  Clearly, none of these reflected opinions – separately or collectively – form an actually existing self; they are just opinions.

When a juggler spins a flaming torch fast enough at night, the burning ends of the torch appear to form a solid circle of fire. Of course the circle is an optical illusion. In a similar way, our sense of self is an illusory fire-circle formed of reflected opinions captured as thoughts in our head. 

The ego cannot choose to be nonattached for the simple reason that it does not exist. Something that does not exist obviously cannot cause itself to disappear – there is nothing to disappear, and there is nothing to make that happen. But, as we will discuss below, although the fire-circle of ego doesn’t exist, because it is made up of thoughts, memories, reflections, it can be dropped by dropping the thoughts maintaining the illusion.

Similarly, the idea that nonattachment means giving up love for the people closest to us and replacing it with cold indifference is another deeply misguided Western misinterpretation. In his book, ‘In the Hope of Nibbana: Theravada Buddhist Ethics,’ published in 1964, Winston King wrote:

‘Whatever [English] term we adopt [for upekkha, equanimity], something of its quality is evident: controlled balance of mind, emotional non-attachment or neutrality, and “beyondness” with regard to ordinary ethical uncertainties and struggles. It is seemingly a calm detachment of eternity mindedness that has little interest any longer in the ordinary affairs of men… the possessor of equanimity goes on, completely unshaken emotionally or mentally by the world’s mental, moral, or social disturbances.’ (Winston King, ‘In the Hope of Nibbana: Theravada Buddhist Ethics’, LaSalle, Open Court, 1964, p.162)

But, in fact, the equanimity that is attained with nonattachment does not lead to indifference to the ‘ordinary affairs of men’. In his response to King, Buddhist writer Harvey B. Aronson observed with regard to the Buddha:

‘He did not turn his back on the concerns of the common man. He spent the last forty-five years of his life wandering to different parts of India teaching individuals from all walks of life assorted topics including those relating to the “ordinary affairs of men” such as gambling, investment, and conjugal relations.’ (Harvey B. Aronson, ‘Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism,’ Motilal Barnasidass, 1996, pp.19-20)

Being free of attachment does not mean Offill giving up her ‘mother love’ for her daughter. Why? Because the central understanding of all mystical experience is that the very nature of unattached human awareness is unconditional love and limitless bliss.

‘There Is Darkness And Nothing Else’?

After my dad died, three related phenomena were clearly evident: a storm of thoughts in my head, a searing pool of emotional pain in my heart, and a witnessing consciousness observing both.

Here’s a storm-chasing snapshot of my mind the night after he died. Without himself becoming infected, my dad had been stuck in a Covid-ridden hospital for the last four weeks of his life, unable to see any of us:

‘“I better go, Davy; I’ve got two scoops of ice cream waiting to be devoured. Bye!” My god, those were the last words he ever said to me! How on earth can he have died within 24 hours of being let out of hospital? Why did they let him go, if he was so ill? They said his heart was at 25% capacity, his kidneys same or worse. He had no idea if he was even on steroids or not. How will we take care of mum during the lockdown? She’ll be alone in the house having lost her partner of 65 years. 65 years! And now she’s alone at the age of 85! How must that feel?! How can we get medical help to her without her getting Covid? She almost fell over this morning because she hadn’t slept. Are we going to lose both of them in the same month? “Please, you can just pick me up and take me home – I’ve been stuck here for weeks; I can’t take it any more. Just take me home.” He must have been suffering horribly to say something like that. “But there’s no care package, if you just leave, dad; you’ll be on your own.” We should have just taken him out, we shouldn’t have just left him there. How is it possible he could just die within 24 hours of being sent home? Will I end up being poured in white plumes across the crematorium grass? Who am I kidding? Of course I will! How will we take care of mum now? “I’ve got two scoops of ice cream waiting to be devoured.” Mum’s alone for the first time in 65 years! He said to her: “Try to remember the good times.” How could he die the day after coming home?…’.

And so on. This painful, endlessly cycling thought-storm was waiting for me in the treacherous wee small hours of the night. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote so beautifully:

‘Day’s pain, muffled by its own glare

‘burns among stars in the night.’ (Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Complete Poetical Works of Rabindranath Tagore’, e-book version, ‎e-artnow, 2020, p.419)

And this burning emotional pain was the second phenomenon: intense sadness, anxiety and anguish in the centre of my chest. This pain was, of course, provoked by thoughts. But the pain, in turn, fuelled more thoughts.

Surging thoughts, pain, and then a mysterious third phenomenon: my awareness, my consciousness, watching both. Osho told a wonderful story of an epiphany on the theme of this witnessing consciousness:

‘One of the great philosophers of the West, C.E.M. Joad, was dying, and a friend, who was a disciple of [mystic] George Gurdjieff, had come to see him. Joad asked the friend:

‘“What do you go on doing with this strange fellow, George Gurdjieff? Why are you wasting your time? And not only you… I have heard that many people are wasting their time.”

‘The friend laughed. He said:

‘“It is strange that those few people who are with Gurdjieff think that the whole world is wasting its time, and you are thinking that we are wasting our time.”

‘Joad said: “I don’t have much longer to live; otherwise I would have come and compared.”

‘The friend said:

‘“Even if you have only a few seconds more to live, it can be done here, now.”

‘Joad agreed.

‘The man said:

‘“You close your eyes and just look inside, and then open your eyes and tell me what you find.”

‘Joad closed his eyes, opened his eyes and said:

‘“There is darkness and nothing else.”

‘The friend laughed and he said:

‘“It is not a time [for me] to laugh, because you are almost dying, but I have come at the right time. You said that you saw only darkness inside?”

‘Joad said: “Of course.”

‘And the man said:

‘“You are such a great philosopher; you have written such beautiful books. Can’t you see the point, that there are two things – you and the darkness? Otherwise, who saw the darkness? Darkness cannot see itself – that much is certain – and darkness cannot report that there is only darkness.”

‘Joad gave it consideration and he said:

‘“My God, perhaps the people who are with Gurdjieff are not wasting their time. This is true, I have seen the darkness.”’ (Osho, ‘The Razor’s Edge’, e-book, 1987)

It is true! There is the darkness – the storm of thoughts driven by intense emotional pain in the chest – but there is also a witnessing presence observing the darkness. The darkness is not observing itself. The darkness and that which is aware of the darkness are not the same.

When this witnessing awareness focused on the thoughts in my head, they proliferated and the emotional pain in my chest increased. By contrast, when the witness focused on the emotional pain, something very different happened. At first, the pain actually seemed to increase, because I was facing it directly for the first time. But as I continued to divert attention away from the thoughts to the pain, as I delved into the pain as deeply as possible – feeling the sadness, the anguish – my thoughts were deprived of the energy imparted by attention and started to subside. As the thinking subsided, so did the thought-driven pain in my chest. The more I focused on the painful feelings, the less energy was available to maintain both thoughts and pain.

Even this slight improvement was a relief, an encouragement. I continued to focus on the pain, which lessened even more. Thoughts continued to pop into my head, of course, but they now had less emotional pain to feed off and so couldn’t reinforce that pain so easily.

Eventually, it reached a point where I was enjoying watching, feeling the pain; I didn’t want to stop. In fact, I was no longer sure if it really was pain now? What was it, then: pleasure? In the immediate aftermath of my dad’s death? It seemed almost indecent!

As the pain continued to reduce and thoughts lessened, a moment came when I was so focused on feeling that a tiny gap appeared in the chain of thoughts. Through that gap, a minute but intense point of bliss ‘sparked’ in my chest. It was a blazing, ecstatic spark of love and delight.

I focused attention on this tiny spark, which dissolved, spread and deepened, so that it formed a shimmering pool of bliss and love across my chest and upper back. It wasn’t that I felt love for anyone in particular. Rather, love was there and I felt love for whichever person popped into my thoughts, or for whatever object popped into my sense perceptions.

The burning anguish had now completely disappeared. I felt ecstatic delight, happiness, peace – I was over-flowing with a loving warmth. This loving bliss – why not call it loving bliss rather than the tautological ‘loving kindness’, as if we’re reluctant to admit we feel bliss? – stayed with me for the rest of the day. In reference to this experience, I made this short entry in my journal four days after my dad had died:

‘Bliss in the afternoon meditation.’

This is an example of one tiny moment of nonattachment and it was the result of passive observation, not an act of will.

Attachment and the pain of attachment are ultimately made up of thoughts – when we stop focusing on thoughts and start focusing on perceptions, sensations and emotions, the thoughts subside. When a tiny gap eventually appears in the chain of thought, an internal source of love and bliss ordinarily obscured by the cloud of thought is able to blaze through this gap in the clouds.

This doesn’t mean giving up motherly or indeed filial love; it means an outpouring of  love that flows to children and parents – in fact, to everyone and everything.

Other attachments then begin to fall away. Ambition for sensual pleasures, attention, applause, fame and gain starts to lessen because we know their pursuit generates vast clouds of thought that painfully obscure our inner bliss. When we have tasted this authentic delight even once, our priority instantly becomes that of refining and deepening the art of self-observation.

Conclusion – Unspoken Secrets

I’ve written about my experience, not because I think it is in any way exceptional – millions of people have been experiencing this and far more profound results from meditation for many thousands of years. I’m sharing it because it has radical implications for our whole approach to suffering and happiness.

Like everybody else, I grew up in a culture that persuaded me to believe that my emotions were too much for me to handle. Powerful forces in our society encourage us to view anxiety, craving, sadness and grief as illnesses that require therapeutic and pharmacological intervention. That may indeed sometimes be true in the case of severe depression, for example. But there is a deep problem here.

In his important book, ‘Undoctored – Why Health Care Has Failed You And How You Can Become Smarter Than Your Own Doctor’, US cardiologist Dr. William Davis blows a loud whistle on modern health provision:

‘The unspoken secret is that providers prefer treatment over prevention, expensive over inexpensive, patent-protectable over non-patent protectable, billable procedure over nonbillable procedure, BMW over Toyota Prius… Health care is a business, a big business (the biggest business of all in the United States), a business that continually seeks to grow its revenues and profits.’ (Davis, ‘Undoctored’, Rodale, 2017, p.30)

The logic of this will be familiar to anyone who has been following Media Lens over the last 20 years, and it surely rings true for anyone who has interacted with Western health care.

Davis adds:

‘There is a continual push to “medicalise” human life: shyness is now “social anxiety disorder” to justify “treatment” with antidepressant medication; binging in the middle of the night is now “sleep-related eating disorder” to justify treatment with seizure medication and antidepressants…’ (p.30)

The damning conclusion from this courageous insider:

‘In other words, neglect the cause, profit from the treatment. It is the unspoken but defining mantra of modern health care. Health is not part of the equation.’ (p.32)

This helps explain why so many of us have been persuaded to believe that we can’t cope with our emotions, perceived as overwhelming, unmanageable. Our militarised culture even uses the term ‘panic attack’ to suggest we are being assaulted by some vicious enemy.

But these are our emotions, they are part of us. They contain crucial information, deep wisdom about the wrong paths we are taking. Very often, they are psycho-physical dissidents challenging the follies and ambitions of our ego, utterly detached as it is from the reality of our bodies and the rest of the natural world. The head is full of hot air, dreams; the body and its emotions are rooted in reality. Feelings are far more honest, a portal to truth.

There is a terrible price to pay for medicating, silencing, numbing our emotional dissent. The whole lesson of every mystic over millennia is that the art of living involves precisely overcoming our head-trapped numbness, in becoming acutely sensitive to the cryptic messages of our feelings, no matter how painful. The more closely we listen, the more deeply we understand, not just great but entirely unimagined treasures pour into our life and world.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org