A few moments ago, I gave my dog a bath. I’d been unconsciously stroking his head as I sat out on the balcony and noticed he’d accumulated quite a bit of grime since his last ablutions. It seemed as though he’d been washed very recently although in reality, I’d neglected that chore for over a month and a half. “How did you get so filthy already?” I asked my non-conceptual, non-verbal pet. Quickly understanding the silliness of posing such a question, I tried again: “How did a month and a half go by so fast?” Strike two.
Two weeks ago today, I was on an airplane on my way to New Jersey to attend my mother’s funeral. The preponderance of emotion inherent in that situation ensured that it left a greater imprint on my psyche than did the occasion of the last time I bathed the dog. Though the images in my memory from that weekend are considerably more vivid than those I retain of routine daily events, they seem distant, as if my mother’s death and its immediate aftermath happened years ago. As it is a human tendency to take refuge in the mundane and the familiar, when life’s unforeseen but inevitable upheavals occur, our minds are forced — usually under considerable duress — to immerse themselves fully in the situation at hand lest we risk unskillful negotiation of a delicate situation. We say that we “rise to the occasion” or other self-congratulatory platitudes because this reminds us that the person enduring the unexpected event is the same person who engages in comfortably predictable day-to-day activities most of the time. But is it the same person? Right now, I feel like a guy who just gave his dog a bath and then for some unfathomable reason, decided to sit down and write about it. I do not feel like a guy who recently flew home to bury his mother. Who am I?
That simple existential question, “who am I?” is the key to understanding our glaring misunderstandings about our lives and the meaning we apply to them. But if the question is posed with attachment to the ostensible subject of the query, it can also become the root cause of our suffering. In other words, “I” should be understood as a feeling, not a concrete phenomenon and “who” should be understood as a verbal convention that merely posits the inquisitor as a consciousness as opposed to a teacup. The question is only useful if it calls our sense of self into doubt because this solidification of fluid process into static entity is humanity’s first, biggest and only significant mistake. (Rabbit Hole aside: can anyone actually make a “mistake”? Who decides that an action is wrong and by what inherent standards? Are there any inherent standards?)
The Buddhists instruct us to do it like this, in a series of maddeningly specific queries designed to elicit a clear understanding of what we’re not: “Am I my body? Am I my mind? What is my mind? Am I my thoughts? Am I my beliefs? If I am my body, then what is my elbow? If I am my mind, then why has this allegedly static entity “changed its mind” about so many things over the years? Am I a soul? If so, where is that located? Is mind a less mystical sounding word for soul? If I am the soul and the soul is eternal, then I am eternal – so why am I afraid of dying?” And so on. Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of inquiry should result in the complete disappearance of the greatest adversary you’ve ever known: “your” Self.
When you stop viewing yourself as solid and eternal, unfettered life can begin. Interconnection isn’t just a spiritual idea but the true nature of all phenomena. All of us are closed-ended processes that constitute mere droplets in each generational wave of our species. Our species is a closed-ended process that constitutes a mere droplet in the current transformational wave of the phenomenal Universe. The moment you are born, the life-long death process begins, just as the dissolution of the Universe began at the moment of the Big Bang. But since every back must have a front, the birth process is also inherent in death. Existence implies non-existence and vice-versa. Eternity is a compelling chimera and it only seems attractive to us because we’ve never really taken the time to think it through. Those who would live forever should expect to find themselves devoid of values or even basic meaning were their wishes to come to fruition. An eternal organism can have no identity because in infinite time, such an organism would do, say, think, and be everything that can possibly be done, said, thought and classified infinite times over. Do you really want to experience what it’s like to be Donald Trump? Or a leper on the streets of Mumbai? Or JoJo Siwa?
Eternal life – a wishful notion that is the same as an endless spiritual existence in an afterlife of perpetual joy or suffering (which also serves to solidify the abstract notion of justice, another of the imaginary meanings we append to our lives) – is patently illogical. “Eternal paradise” would not be experienced as such. Without the relativity of opposites, the paradisiacal aspects of such an existence would go unnoticed. I would not have noticed that my dog was dirty this morning, had I not been familiar with the characteristics of a clean dog. My mother’s passing would have had no impact upon anyone had she not lived, nor could she have lived without the inevitability of her death. There is no back without a front, no darkness without light, no pleasure without pain. Duality guides our thoughts and emotions, while unity is the universal law. No amount of wishful thinking can change this, but such thinking does make the experience far more difficult than it needs to be.
Because we refuse to analyze the soundness of our ideals and the reality of our beautiful mortality, we continue to ask moronic questions with the real expectation of receiving sensible answers. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone reading this that you understand why such unsophisticated theological queries as “why does god let bad things happen?” are replete with naive assumptions. But what about, “how can people treat each other so badly?” Is that any more sensible? The good needs the bad and the bad needs the good and no other species insists on classifying things with such egotistical judgment as we do. World events, no matter how seemingly cataclysmic, are nothing more than the ebb and flow of light and dark. Were either of these forces to become dominant, what we call “progress” would stagnate.
A world of perpetual joy is a catacomb. Shedding ideals and imagined meaning is the path to freedom. I miss my mom, but my dog is clean. And thus, everything is perfect.