And the rains they came. The monsoon season has started here. A day earlier than expected. Shows how much we silly humans know. It’s grey, humid and wet. The sounds are soothing. The repetition is somehow comforting. I’m sleeping better although I have less energy. Walking up the hill to my place from the subway station feels like my legs are made of concrete. Feeling wild, I ordered a latte with half a shot of espresso and the next day had a pounding headache. My joints ache. My life right now could be an advertisement for all of Pema Chodron’s books: When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, Taking the Leap, Comfortable With Uncertainty. You get the idea. It’s a time of transition, of uncertainty, of stepping outside of my comfort zone, of making choices and putting my agency behind them (as Ruth Chang would say). A group of friends I’ve leaned on these past few years has sadly disbanded. Although it wasn’t sudden, it’s still sad. What was sudden, though, was my friend’s loss of her twin fetuses at almost twelve weeks. I was able to offer her some comfort. These things happen. Nature is cruel. It’s not your fault. Still it rains. Then there was the death of my friend’s brother who was walking to meet his friends near the river where I had been just a few days before. It was a taxi, they said. It came out of nowhere and now he is no longer. Silly humans. Inside and outside are grey. But rain is good. It can cleanse and help things grow.
I stood alone in a corner waiting for my friends to arrive. I was wearing a new dress bought for this special occasion, my American friend’s wedding. It was black chiffon with dark pink flowers. It’s a cute dress and I hope to wear it again somebody. It was a fun, happy, quirky wedding. I felt grateful to have been able to experience it with my friends. We drove to the next venue, stopping on the way for tea in a new cafe/bar surrounded by traditional houses and fairy lights. People were drunk and laughing and there was a chaotic vibe in the air at the afterparty. I said goodbye to my friends, we said we would catch up soon, in a few weeks, maybe have dinner.
None of us knew that just one week later a mutual friend’s brother would jump off a bridge and die. We didn’t know then that we would gather in nine days time at a funeral home where we would pray in front of a coffin and offer a white flower to the deceased. We didn’t go just to support our friend. We also knew the dearly departed. We had trained capoeira together. We had partied together. We were all social media friends and followers. We couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Our young, handsome, charismatic, intelligent and talented friend had taken his own life under difficult, but not insurmountable, circumstances. An irrational and permanent response to an impermanent problem. I thought to myself how amazing that I have gone this long in life and never been to a funeral. It was my first and I held his mother tight as she sobbed into my arms.
Pepper the past few weeks with some job rejections, a lacklustre birthday and some lonely Saturday nights with only a needy existential crisis for company and I do believe I am living what is known as the full catastrophe. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that you have no control over, over when or if it will stop and if you’ll ever be able to get off. There’s little time to process thoughts and feelings, to read the emotional data, to regroup before the next wave comes and washes over you. It’s those cliches again, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. Everyday there’s an opportunity for perspective taking, for saying a quick atheist prayer for my friend whose brother is gone far too soon and far too tragically. And least we forget the brother. Rest peacefully, HJ. You are forever in our thoughts, prayers and hearts.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I learnt about Vipassana meditation. It could’ve been from reading this hilarious travel memoir of India, or from watching the excellent and poignant documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, about the technique being taught to inmates on death row in the American south. There were also fellow travelers I met ‘on the road’ who had done it (it’s like number three on the travel To Do List after a diving course and learning Thai massage).
So as I find my interest in meditation deepening, I wanted to tick it off my list too. So I applied to the center in New Zealand, just outside of Auckland. Being the chicken that I am, I didn’t read too much about it for fear of psyching myself out at the last minute. All I knew what that you couldn’t talk, read or write for ten days, had to get up at 4am, and could only eat twice a day. Oh, and you couldn’t use the Internet. The not talking part I could get on board with – being an introvert, it’s basically like normal life for me. But the other rules, they would probably kill me. Spoiler: they did not.
Having low or no expectations sometimes pays off. In this case, there were some nice surprises: we got our own little cabin that had a heater (being a cold-blooded reptile, this mattered in winter). Although bathrooms were shared, they were clean and the showers hot (for the first five minutes at least). The other people seemed normal (and didn’t turn up in straight jackets as I had initially imagined). The setting was gorgeous, full of native flora and fauna. Men and women were completely separate, except for the meditation hall, so I didn’t need to worry about being victimized by the intrusive male gaze. Nobody checked my bags and found the contraband candy and pen and paper that I had smuggled it. Win.
I gave it my best shot the first few days. I followed the rules, got up and 4am, worked hard huffing in and out through my nose for ten hours a day and rewarded myself with hot shower before bed at 9pm. By the fourth day, when the meditation technique changes and becomes more complex, requiring more dedication and concentration, I was losing interest. I started to ignore the 4am incessant donging of the bell. I would give up midway through a session and open my eyes surreptitiously and scan the room. Why is everyone so still and quiet and in the zone? Why can’t I stay still for more than a few minutes at a time? Where does the teacher stay? Why does she just pop in and out like the bird in a cuckoo clock and never leave the little house attached to the meditation hall?
Then, when we went back to our cabin for hours of self-practice, alone, I would crawl into my sleeping bag and take a nap. I was bored. I was ruing the day that I handed in my iPad. I would’ve killed for a book, a distraction from myself and my spastic monkey mind. The only things to look forward to were eating, walking around the forested pathways and hopefully seeing the big fluffy wild rabbits that sometimes hung out, and showering. (Although once, I did indulge in a rapturous two minutes when I found a cotton tip in my bag and was ecstatic to clean out my ears for the first time in a few weeks.
So I was getting increasingly tired and grumpy listening to Mr. Goenka’s droning on and on. I was also becoming more sensitive to noise, smell etc. My body ached and I spent more time focusing on not farting in front of 60 silent meditators than actually meditating. I was conscious of disturbing my neighbors with all my squirming – of course, the Russian IT exec in front of me, the American classical musician on my left and the German princess/supermodel on my right were perfectly still all the time and obviously accessing some deep state and inner peace that was available to everyone except for me. However, my true nemesis was the woman who was sitting north east of me. She was one of those tall, eccentric, commanding ladies who take up too much space. I named her ‘Geisha’ after the ridiculous Japanese kimono thing she wore which rustled like someone was making balls of aluminium foil every time she moved. I spent good amounts of meditation time thinking about how I was going to murder her. So, without ever having spoken to her, I made her my enemy number 1. Every time I saw her in the food hall or walking to the bathroom with her oversized Japanese silk duffel bag, I gave her the stare of death.
I soldiered on, somewhat half-assedly. And lo and behold, my mind did become still and clear. I did experience ‘equanimity’. I did become ‘equanimous’ (that has to be read with Goenka’s thick, drawling Indian accent). I was able to step back from the ups and downs of my thoughts. To look up at the sky and watch the clouds come and go and realize that my mind was the sky and my thoughts were the clouds. I had moments of ‘choice-less awareness’ and experienced interesting meditation states. Not blissful per se, but otherworldly. I was not, however, one of those people running around, hugging trees with a maniacal look in my eyes. But alone in my little cabin, I felt present and a sense of what it is to be nobody and go nowhere.
So finally at the end of the ten days, we were allowed to talk and to get out phones back. Two interesting points about this. First, I didn’t really want to start talking again and kind of liked the protective shield Noble Silence gave me. Second, I really, really didn’t want my phone back. At times during the ten days, I had worried about missing important work-related emails, and had catastrophized about something bad happening to a family member or friend, but I didn’t have any FOMO. So when I got my phone back and had an Internet connection, I was reluctant to plug back in. Of course, it was inevitable that I had to, but was relieved to find that there was nothing of importance awaiting me.
Also, another nice surprise: the other ladies were really, really nice. We all admitted we had made up stories about each other, including names (because we had talked so minimally before the course started, if at all). The people were normal! There was doctor, a nurse, a scientist, a film person, a Harley Davidson dealer, an art gallery director, a Dutch social worker, a Tahitian dance teacher and a gaggle of requisite characters straight from central casting (yoga teacher, German travelers, massage therapist). We all felt bonded by our shared experience.
As we were cleaning up in the final hours before heading back to civilization, one of my meditation hall neighbors apologized for moving so much and distracting me. “You were so still and quiet, I felt bad every time I moved,” she quipped. I found this rather ironic and told her that I should be the one apologizing to her. We laughed. As for Geisha, well she came and plopped herself down beside me on the last day at breakfast. We started talking and of course it turns out she is in fact not a bitch but super simpatico and funny. I felt like such a jerk, just for a minute though. I didn’t want to get too attached and disturb my equanimity.
As we move through life, two things are said to be certain: taxes and death. Of course, everyone must die and any rational person will realize, at the very least, they will lose someone they love and/or are related to. We know that our grandparents and parents will one day pass away, we just don’t know when. Those of us who are particularly unlucky may lose a sibling, a partner, a friend, or the worst kind of loss, a child.
I have been lucky so far – having never actually attended a funeral due to being overseas despite having lost three of my four grandparents, a good friend and three other friends from my university days who passed away (from murder, two car crashes and one mystery). These stung less because I wasn’t in touch with them and hadn’t been for years.
I wasn’t sure how to feel when my mother recently relayed the news that a childhood and family friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and been given two months to live. This came just weeks after an old colleague and flatmate died tragically on the roads at Easter. At first I was in denial, thinking my mother had her facts wrong and that with treatment, his outcome would be better – if he couldn’t be cured, surely the doctors could extend his life by at least a year or more? But no.
I haven’t seen this friend for many years and barely even thought about him. But now my childhood memories come flooding back – we shared baths, games, holidays, Christmases together. He has just entered his 30’s, is married, and has a young son. I glimpsed his Facebook timeline to see that he had posted a photo of himself and his son sharing some moments on a lake, with a caption about how precious life is. I cried twice over that photo.
I thought about his kind mother who just recently lost her husband after unsuccessful heart surgery. His sister, who was once my closest friend in the world moved back from overseas to be with him in his last months. Their lives will forever be turned upside down.
I told a good friend about the situation and how it had made me feel very sad. She then asked a profound question: “What would you do if you had two months to live?” While this horrific situation is not about me, I did start thinking and realized that I would want to visit all the places I had never been. To spend time with loved ones. To definitely not be in my current situation. But at the same time, I have to be grateful that I am alive and healthy and am lucky to be in my current situation.
Having absorbed the information and come to terms with my friend’s fate, the next challenge is to consider how to reach out. What do you say to someone who you haven’t had any contact with for two decades and who only has weeks to live? I don’t have the luxury of time to sit around thinking about it too much. But in the meantime, I think we could all agree upon this message: fuck cancer.
As summer segues into fall, I’m reminded of the impermanence of life. This year, the end of a relationship and a job drove home the fact that nothing is forever. More recently, the death of a good friend’s father after a long battle with cancer served as a jolt, as did the ten year anniversary of a friend’s tragic death this week.
I only met this friend once when I lived in Japan. He was a friend of a Canadian colleague and a bunch of us went to visit Kyoto for a long weekend and were able to stay with him. Little did I know that he would be dead in a year. He was a visiting professor in his early 30s from Canada with a penchant for motorcycles. His widow wrote about their last conversation in commemoration of the anniversary. She was living in Vancouver at the time of his death (and still resides there). They spoke on a Saturday evening as he sat outside a mechanic’s waiting for his motorcycle to be repaired. He was reading a book by his favorite screen writer he told her. It was his real passion, much more than his teaching job. His wife told him that life was too short, he should do what he loved, that he should return to Canada and she would support him through a graduate degree in screen writing. Little did she know that in a few days, she’d be on a plane to Japan to identify her husband’s body after he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
I was travelling at this time and received the news while sailing down the Nile. Little did I know that in just a few months, one of the close friends I was travelling with would be killed in a botched robbery. But this is the unpredictable and impermanent nature of life.
To stop myself jumping on the merry-go-round of rumination, I find it helpful to think about impermanence in a more spiritual context.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield proposes that impermanence is both an act of courage and compassion and allows us to face the difficulties from which we have always run.
As he writes: “According to Buddhist scriptures, compassion is the ‘quivering of the pure heart’ when we have allowed ourselves to be touched by the pain of life. The knowledge that we can do this and survive helps us to awaken the greatness of our heart. With greatness of heart, we can sustain a presence in the midst of life’s suffering, in the midst of life’s fleeting impermanence. We can open to the world – its ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.”
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron also chimes in and writes about the bittersweet nature of impermanence: “Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again – in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love. Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and years later finding it as part of a patchwork quilt.”
Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg believes impermanence snatches away our illusions: “We have an illusion that a certain time, a certain place, a certain person is the only way. Without it or them, we are lost. It is not true. Impermanence teaches us this. There is no one thing to hold on to.”
And now, let’s leave the Buddhists behind and take heed of what was written in Ecclesiastes (3:1-10).
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”