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Archive for the ‘Existential Psychology’ Category

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As I stood at the doorway to his room, it was as if he looked straight into my eyes.  His eyes were still open and blue as ever. I couldn’t quite tell if he had a smile on his face, but he looked peaceful. I felt heartened and found solace in this last expression of his. I also felt sadness that I would never encounter him in the hallways again nor would I be able to say, “Hi” to him. I will miss that.

Over the months, volunteering in hospice, there had been numerous struggles (tears, fear and anger) over what lie ahead for him. I tried in what seemed like an endless exercise in futility to provide some comfort to him during these months, to help him process his impending death. However, he fought me every inch, railed against his own understanding of his impending death and forced me to take him on his own terms, regardless of whatever agenda I had for him.  He was a skillful teacher for me. Over time, I abandoned this agenda of mine and let him take the lead. I often found myself serving his need to be distracted from his understandings of his impending death. It perplexed me at the time and forced me beyond my confined understanding of what I was doing as a hospice volunteer and my own understandings of death, that’s what made him such a good teacher for me.

In looking at my own remembrance of encountering death, I began to see the teaching. Trying to understand the experience of death, trying to wrap one’s head around it is an exercise in futility. We cannot know. If we make up something frightful about death we suffer more intensely. If we make up something pleasant about death we suffer less intensely. If we make up nothing about death, we suffer not.

Personally, I don’t remember dying almost 2 years ago and it’s almost as if it didn’t happen at all (see previous posts, “The Paradox of Death and Deathlessness”). In a way, it was much ado about nothing for me and yet for my rescuers and family, way too much happened. I can’t say it was much ado about nothing for them! My point is that death is a concept, an understanding, and concepts or understandings are not the thing itself. Whatever we think, whatever understanding we have, whatever label we give, tis not the thing itself. Then, there is the understanding of absence or oblivion which is really no different than any other kind of understanding, it just an understanding that parades itself as a nothing.

In the Zen tradition, there is a story of a monk that would carry a pail of water from a local stream to his humble abode nightly. This monk would admire deeply the reflection of the moon in this pail of water as he walked home. It seemed so beautiful to him. One night, as he walked home, the pail fell from his hand hit the ground and shattered. The water dispersed and the thirsty ground soaked it all up. No pail, no water, no reflection that he had gained such pleasure from. In his anguish he turned his head to cry into the sky, only to see the real moon, for the very first time shining bright in all its glory high in the night sky above! What a pale imitation the reflection of the moon in the pail of water was!

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Our understandings are these reflections in a pail of water they encourage us to look beyond the understanding to the direct experience, but we are so enthralled with our understandings because we think that that understanding is all we have. We mistake that the absence of understanding is nothing in a while it is described as emptiness from the perspective of understanding, it’s absolutely not empty! The point of practice, be that meditation or inquiry, is to break the obsession with this “pail” understandings and to begin to perceive directly the non-conceptual wisdom.

All our understandings in this life, including our understanding of death, are “pail” understandings. They are pale versions of direct perceptions. What my teacher (in this hospice resident) here reminded me of, was that death need not be processed through our “pail” understanding. Whether our final months/moments here involve existential inquiry or living as if there is no death, matters not. I am reminded of the truly unimaginable ground of existence!

Whether I think I know what I’m doing, or not, in how I am serving hospice residents or living life in general, matters not. My job is to be present, open, and compassionate. It’s okay to make up frightful things about death. It’s okay to make up comforting things about death. It’s okay to make up neutral things about death. It’s okay not to think about death at all! It’s an awful lot of work to make all these things up and sometimes I can just feel lazy and let it all go! Besides, I don’t think that the universe really concerns itself much with our understandings. It seems to me that on an ultimate level, existence is perfect as it is and the universe is completely independent of any of our understandings or judgments, mine, his, or anyone else’s.

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You, teacher, taught me this most pointedly as your lifeless body gazed into me and pierced my “pail” understandings of you, me, life, and death.  Thank you for the reminder that understanding is a virtual playground, feel free to play in the infinite number of pleasant and unpleasant creations and remember that they are unnecessarily confining! Go ahead and pretend that these “pail” understandings are in any way real, to your heart’s content if you must!  Ultimately, we must leave our confinement of pail understandings, this playground that we play in, and when we do we will never want to return to such limitation and confinement for it will seem like a prison to us.

In the meantime, play in them until you’re no longer interested.

QUIETNESS

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side.

Become the sky.

Take an ax to the prison wall.

Escape. Walk out

like someone suddenly born into color.

Do it now.

You’re covered with thick cloud.

Slide out the side. Die,

and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign

that you’ve died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon comes out now.

~Rumi

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I remember the weeks following my cardiac arrest where my experience of life was really quite different. I was much more present for each moment of each experience that I had. While my mind was much less cluttered with the thoughts that typically tumbled one after another like an endless line of circus clowns, I was much clearer about life.

It’s not that I knew what life was all about, as far as having it in a nice neat little pigeonhole; it was just that I wasn’t making up all of the extra crap that I had been used to making up about it. I was so much more sensitive to each individual experience, each individual person, and awe-inspired by each of them! It was really the simple things in life that were most amazing (love, connection, presence) and the absurdities that typically characterize human relationships were simply unintelligible gibberish that was easy for me to simply ignore. The precipice of death has this uniquely clarifying quality that is rather compelling. I have found myself drawn towards this space, wanting to return ever since. Secretly, I can even be defiant at times, taunting death in my own mind, pushing limits, rather unconcerned about my mortality and the temporary nature of this life (not that I put myself at mortal risk, really).

but, what a peculiar a thing to say!? To want to return to this edge between life and death!? What is this paradoxical attraction? No, I’m not afraid of death and no, I don’t want to leave this planet either. And yet I also long for this freedom from the absurdity that characterizes most human interactions! How is it, that we human beings have turned this precious and amazing existence into a funhouse hall of mirrors? Hiding from each other, posturing, and getting our highest priorities completely wrong!? How is it that I find myself entranced by this, yet again, after such a profound clarity? Swept up by utterly inconsequential interactions!?

A friend, a fellow SCA survivor, recently said, “I want to die again. Just so I can remember how unimportant all of these trivial day-to-day emotions/feelings/experiences really are. I mean, I don’t really want to die, but…” As someone who has been to this edge, I completely understand this compelling attraction, but unless one has stepped onto the precipice of death, it is difficult if not impossible to understand. Some of us (SCA survivors) remember having what could be called Near-Death Experiences. Others, like myself, don’t remember having such experiences. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that I nevertheless had such an experience, but simply don’t consciously remember it! Otherwise, why would I feel this way?

How do you explain to somebody, who has not been to this edge, the compelling nature of it? It would seem crazy to them, but to us it was so much more sane than the insanity of what everyone else seems to call “normal life.” To just about every SCA survivor that I have met, “normal” life is absurd and incomprehensible and even though most of us eventually, reluctantly, become re-entranced by its illusions and absurdities, we also remember the clarity of being beyond the fray. We long for that clarity again and worst of all, find ourselves perpetually in a neither-land, stuck between the two. We no longer live in the land of clarity of presence and yet we can no longer completely buy into being “normal.”  We are left with having a foot in each world and yet at are at home in neither. It’s a purgatory, of sorts, that we now live in. I don’t see how those who have never died could possibly understand the depth and breadth of this paradox that we live each day.

I have a special affinity for Daniel Ladinsky’s translations of Hafiz because of his ability to speak certain truths that resonate with me.

For your consideration:

“Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,

Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door

My address is somewhere else.”

~ Hafiz

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I wrote this three months after my cardiac arrest.

On March 1, 2011, at the age of 42, I was about 20 min. into a routine two-hour run around Lake Merritt in Oakland when I collapsed from Sudden Cardiac Arrest (V-Fib). To my fortune, there was a runner, Andy Hill,  who happen to be close enough to help break my fall and provide immediate aid.  Additionally, three other bystanders rendered CPR and contacted 911. While under the care the paramedics, they continued CPR and used a defibrillator 2x before getting some semblance of a life-sustaining rythm from my heart. They took me to the hospital where I was put into a drug-induced coma and put in a therapeutic hypothermia for 24 hours in order to protect my brain as my heart stabilized.   I spent three days in the intensive care unit and a total of 10 days in the hospital.  All I remember of this event is beginning my run that day and then waking up in the hospital, days later.

While in the hospital, they ran numerous tests including: a cardiac MRI, and did an EPS (Electro-Physiological Study).  Unfortunately, the doctors were never able to determine the reason for the deadly arrhythmia that I had and, in the end, they implanted an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in my chest  just in case my heart ever goes into a similarly deadly arrhythmia. I hear that it’s not particularly comfortable to be shocked, but I haven’t had that experience yet. I have since learned that I now belong to a rather exclusive club of survivors given that only about 8% of people survive sudden cardiac arrest.  I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had good Samaritans that quickly stepped up to care for me when I could not care for myself by providing CPR, impressively high quality medical care, as well as having previously invested in my own physical health.

Currently, I am back to running under some limitations set by my cardiologist and have largely resumed normal life except for the fact that I’m not allowed to drive for six months following my loss of consciousness.  As I write this, it is almost 3 months to the day since my sudden cardiac arrest. I still can’t wrap my head around what happened to me and may never be able to, but I am grateful beyond words to everyone that has shepherded me through this experience and feel strongly that we (as a society) should do more to save each other. It’s been quite a surreal and mind blowing existential experience.

I continue to maintain contact with the bystanders and the paramedics that saved my life. This is both good and sometimes challenging as there is a part of me, somewhere deep in my subconscious, that actually remembers the trauma of what happened to me on that day. I know this because of the subtle anxiety/dread that I feel in their presence sometimes our when thinking about spending time with them. Sometimes it can feel a little like opening a Pandora’s box.  Some the feelings are rather uncomfortable. Also, as I have reintegrated myself back into normal life, I have had a few examples of pretty classic post-traumatic stress responses to things such as hearing sirens or like on the day that I went on my first run around the Lake where I had my cardiac arrest. While, I’ve been surprised by the subtle triggers that can bring a very visceral sense of dread or impending doom, I’m also determined to recognize any discomfort for what it is and have not let it dictate the terms of my life!

Additionally, there is a way that this experience helps me understand why many survivors do not seek out or maintain contact with their rescuers.  Contact with one’s rescuers can also trigger a post-traumatic stress response.  What an unfortunate irony! There will probably always be a part of us that remembers exactly what happened, whether were conscious of the experience or not that we were headed, very quickly, towards our own death before we were so miraculously rescued by such earthly Angels!

Life is indeed precious and fragile. May we step up to the plate MORE for each other!

May success stories like mine become more common!

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