We tend to think about death, when we do, as this thing that is going to happen to us, somewhere up ahead, some time still a bit distant from now, there’s room yet, some ability to maneuver around, to get to where we’re going, to get things sorted, to put our struggles behind us, to stand on our own two feet in the clear sunlight for a while, for a long time, maybe, before the shadows lengthen and we are called home.
It’s nothing that’s going to happen right away.
But, still, it’s strange and frightening to contemplate it, really. You wonder what it will be like to die- certainly there’s some trepidation there, but the nut of the thing is that being dead forever and what that is going to look like. You can’t really imagine it. A dreamless sleep from which you never awaken might hint at it, a little bit. Or, you know, heaven and the pearly gates, golden light, your loved ones all around and it never rains and everything is perfect forever and ever. Or whatever, somehow the story goes on. Back into rotation, another life, another body, another chance to fuck everything up, to spend your days and nights in terror and obsession, regret and denial, rage and fear. Another bite at the poisoned apple, another handful of glorious sunsets and sweet, lazy summer afternoons. Something, though. The void is just too strange to contemplate.
But we come from that void and return to it every night. We spent an eternity in it before we woke up here, and we spend half our lives safe in its warm and blank embrace.
It isn’t really so strange as we imagine.
Okay, that’s not exactly right, is it? It’s fucking odd as hell, still. We’ve got this big blind spot in our mind, in our whole conception of what it is that we’re living in, what it is that we are and what it is that we do. It’s a fuck of a lot stranger than our minds want us to grasp, and our minds, it seems to me, spend an awful lot of energy trying to keep us distracted from these big gaps that it doesn’t understand or even know how to represent to us. I mean, falling asleep is a very, very strange endeavor and yet it’s among the most intimate aspects of our lives. At any given moment you are only a few handfuls of hours out of the void yourself, today, this very moment. You just emerged, dripping wet as it were, from the vast sea of forgetting that you swim in nightly. And, yeah, it’s not that that time is all blank, there’s this whole dreamtime that colors and lights up our sleeping hours, but think about how that’s represented to you- you remember being sleepy, tossing around, maybe drifting off with lazy, half-formed thoughts, then nothing, then some wild, scattered, half-remembered dreams, then nothing, then another dream or probably not, but the feeling, the emotional aftertaste that reminds you that you were lost and scared, you were bereft, you fought and ran, you met this old friend, who was it?, and you know, it just drifts off like smoke on the water. But your mind shows you the dreams, sort of presents them to you as the evidence that things were still going on and it kind of hopes you won’t pay attention to that part of it where THE WHOLE FUCKING SHOW WAS SHUT DOWN.
I don’t know, maybe it’s important, somehow. Maybe it’s a good idea to explore that aspect of our endeavor. It’s kind of like the visual field, right? You know, our foveal vision where things are in sharp focus is this tiny spot in our overall visual field, but because our eyes and brain work together to bounce the eyes all over the place continuously and then integrate all those visual signals into an illusion that everywhere we look, the world is in focus. But it isn’t. Not by a long shot. And there’s a goddamn blind spot right in the middle of our field of vision where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, and unless you use a little trick to make it reveal itself, you never know it’s there. And those are two kind of subtle indicators that things aren’t exactly the way that the brain wants us to think they are. But how about this one: you can’t see anything behind you! You exist in a 360 degree world but you only have 180 vision that’s obstructed by your eyelids into a narrow band so what you do see, what you think of most of the time as, well, everything, is really more like a flashlight beam of vision in a world of complete darkness. More than half of the world in our little 360 degree bubble is not visible to us, and yet we walk around pretty convinced that we’re pretty much seeing everything that’s around us. But it ain’t like that.
And everything is like that. We get a narrow slice of every set of data that our senses present to us, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, everything. And there’s all kinds of information floating around our heads that we don’t even have sensors for, so we think they aren’t there at all. All kinds of shit. And this is true for our minds as well, we’re shut off from almost every single thing that happens in the dark vault of our skulls, and we mistake the tiny slice for the whole shebang. It’s a terrible mistake we make and we all do it all the time, and then we make all of these decisions about things based upon this very unreliable representation, and we’re totally convinced most of the time, hell, we don’t even have to think about it- we know how things are.
This is nucking futs.
Anyway, back to my point about death and the void of unconsciousness. There’s this whole, giant, intimately familiar and yet utterly strange relationship we have with essentially being dead and we really tend not to think about it. I have never read anything of substance about this issue, and that seems strange to me. I guess it’s difficult to write about something that has no content. I don’t know. It just seems like there’s this whole half of our existence that is very, very closely related to being dead, and yet we never think about it at all, and we almost never think about death but when we do it is this very frightening, very foreign country that we’re terrified to encounter.
I say that I have never read anything of substance about this, but that’s not actually true. Buddhist teachings are all on this shit like white on rice. There’s a lot of teaching on this, and many, many great teachers have investigated this phenomenon very thoroughly and have some profound instructions on it as a result. But it seems like a total void in the western cannon, at least as far as I’ve been able to discover.
And what do those Buddhists say about it? Yeah, you’d like to know that, wouldn’t you? I know I’m pretty interested in it. From what I’ve read and been able to figure out, there’s the understanding among highly realized practitioners that there’s a kind of awareness that permeates all states, a luminous ground of being out of which all experience, all thoughts, and all forms arise, and meditation practice gets us in direct contact with that ground of being. It is something that you can experience directly. Certainly it takes a lot of time and practice, but it seems to be a reliable phenomenon that is widely reported. And in dream yoga it is said that you begin with cultivating the connection to that awareness while you are awake and meditating, but then you can also cultivate that same connection once you’ve attained a stable lucid dreaming practice, you can actually connect with and rest in that awareness while you are dreaming. And then, eventually, with more and more practice and skill and determination and experience, you can maintain connection to that ground of awareness in the transitional states between wakefulness and sleep, between dreamless sleep and dreaming, really, you can maintain awareness continuously. And if you can do this, you can do the same thing in all transitional states, for example, between the bardo of living and the bardo of dying, between the bardos of death and of birth, just like the bardos of wakefulness, dreamless sleep, and dreaming.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. I believe that it is, in a lot of ways that makes sense to me, and I’m engaged in my own attempt to achieve that connection for myself. I’ll let you know how it goes.
All of this is tremendous fun for me. I am suited to the spiritual path and I enjoy thinking deeply about the nature of reality and the nature of what’s beyond the borders of the known. I love practice and I love the ways it is enriching my experience of being alive and being of benefit to those around me. And that’s the real point of this endeavor, after all. It isn’t so much about achieving spiritual creaminess for myself, to fully realize my own innate Buddha nature, although I am committed to doing just that, but it’s really and truly about being a good person, being a loving human being who makes things better for others, who gives love without regard for what comes back, who sees the beauty in everything, who turns away from nothing.
In all the ways that matter, this world is a dream. We’re here so provisionally, so briefly, and we spend our days distracted from what’s important, what really gives meaning to all the suffering and horror we’re absolutely going to undergo.
It seems like a great blessing to wake up, to understand what to let go of and where we should spend ourselves utterly.
What a shame to suffer all of this for nothing.
May you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be free from suffering.