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April 25, 2020

Mountains & Dust

It was not without a great deal of thought that I emerged from my home to attend a funeral for my wife's grandmother last week. It was mid-morning at the temple, and just starting to get hot with the oppressive and merciless stuff of Thai summers. I was sitting just outside the temple entrance with my wife. Inside, a long row of monks sat on an elevated platform chanting. The chants went on for a long time, but were interspersed with the resonant and guttural singing of a man who was kneeling on the ground in front of the altar. As I sat there, barefoot and masked, grazed by the breeze of a nearby floor fan, surrounded by the thick union of life and death, I was struck by the inordinate joy I felt in just touching the soles of my feet to the ground, breathing in and out, drifting off in the songs and chants. The day's sadness would come. And it wasn't entirely absent in that moment. But the joy stood its ground, opened its arms to the sadness and said, There's room for you too.

An hour or so later I was at the cremation site. My wife and her family moved the casket into the giant incinerator. And the joy was cut clean away. But in its place came a collective visceral and spiritual release, raw and pure and beautiful in its own right, and it seemed to clear a path to peace.

What if we all started living as though everyone we encounter is dying? How might that change our behavior? The words we use and the things we allow entry into our minds and hearts and conversations? This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, after being confronted by the thoughts in several different encounters with people who appear to be closer to death than I am, and observing a marked change in myself and my behavior. I've since been drawing significant nourishment from the perceptual shift. But the thing that's kept it so palpable, and so effortless to evoke, is that it requires zero imagination, zero faith, zero anything. It's just the whole and indisputable truth. Everyone you know is dying, including me, and including you. What might a deeper and more regular awareness of that bring you? What might you choose to leave behind? What might be worth holding onto, or building anew, and carrying the distance?

Whenever I think about my own death, or feel touched inappropriately by the anxieties of living, I am reminded (and calmed) by the fact that I don't actually feel much resistance to death. And the resistance I do feel is really just a resistance to unnecessary pain and suffering. Not death itself. I recently had the thought that I'd prefer to keep living in the same way that I'd prefer to watch a movie through to its end. I walked around with that thought for a couple of days before its successor came and clarified that death is the end of the movie, for all of us, at least as far as this whole brain and blood and bone parade of ours goes. It's easy to feel that way about myself and my own death. But much harder to contemplate the passing of others. And I still don't really know how to reconcile the two. But I think one way to start would be to simply talk more about death, and to think more about it, to live as though it's coming for us all, right this second, and in all of the seconds, which it is, and to treat ourselves and each other accordingly. Yes, there will be sadness. As there should be. But there's room for joy too. There's space for release. And there are paths to peace.

Brian Leli, April 2020

A Conversation About Death

I hope this isn't a spoiler, but everybody dies. And when you get really close to it you realize it's as natural a thing as water running down a hill, or rain, or wind, or anything of the natural world. What isn't natural about it is all the fucking forms. And I'm not going to get into how absolutely obscene and horrific it is to find yourself simultaneously trying to connect with your father and allow him a peaceful passing while filling out forms related to what's going to happen with his body, and dealing with his car, or the bank, or just all the obscenities of the modern world that go along with it. Holy shit. That's another podcast intro ... Here's the thing: My dad loved life more than anybody I've ever met. As far as I'm aware, he didn't meditate a day in his life. He didn't read the Bhagavad Gita. He didn't read the Bible. But he read a lot. And he loved a lot. And he was reckless and wild, but he was filled with joy. And his phone is just pictures of dogs, and recipes, and loving texts to his friends. And his body stopped working for him. And now, one of the sweetest souls that I've ever encountered is free. And that's good news.

Duncan Trussell, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour #301, August 2018


The breath of love that never fades
Not lonesome am I, my dear
Though the many years that pass by
My heart is still full of love
Those days ... alone ... you and me ...
Every night from now
The stars shine in our favor forever
Heaven was created for us to meet
Heaven is destroyed for us if we part
But freedom is in my body
While destiny fills my heart
The heaven inside my heart
Through summer and spring with you
The memory of winter
I miss you ... you who were here ...
The breath of love that never fades
Not lonesome am I, my dear
Though the many years that pass by
My heart is still full of love

Apinya Unphanlam, "Destiny," Metaphors: Selected Soundworks from the Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The Lessons of Death

How we think about death changes depending on whether we're thinking about dying ourselves or about losing the people we love. But whichever side of the coin we take here, death is really an ever-present reality for us. And it is so whether we're thinking about it or not. It's always announcing itself in the background: on the news, in the stories we hear about the lives of others, in our concerns about our own health, in the attention we pay when crossing the street. If you observe yourself closely you'll see that you spend a fair amount of energy each day trying not to die. And it has long been noted by philosophers, and contemplatives, and poets: death makes a mockery of almost everything else we spend our lives doing.
Just take a moment to reflect on how you've spent your day so far. The kinds of things that captured your attention. The things that you've been genuinely worried about. Think of the last argument you had with your spouse. Think of the last hour you spent on social media. Over the last few days I've been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find a new font for my podcast. This has literally absorbed hours of my time. So if you had stopped me at any point in the last 48 hours, and asked me what I'm up to, what really concerns me, what deep problem I'm attempting to solve, the solution of which seems most likely to bring order to the chaos in my corner of the universe, the honest answer would have been, I'm looking for a font.
Now, I'm not saying that everything we do has to be profound in every moment; sometimes you just have to find a font. But contemplating the brevity of life brings some perspective to how we use our attention. It's not so much what we pay attention to. It's the quality of attention. It's how we feel while doing it. If you need to spend the next hour looking for a font, you might as well enjoy it. Because the truth is none of us know how much time we have in this life. And taking that fact to heart brings a kind of moral and emotional clarity and energy to the present, or at least it can. And it can bring a resolve to not suffer over stupid things.
Take something like road rage. This is probably the quintessential example of misspent energy. You're behind the wheel of your car and somebody does something erratic, or they're probably just driving more slowly than you want, and you find yourself getting angry. I would submit to you that that kind of thing is impossible if you're being mindful of the shortness of life, if you're aware that you're going to die, and that the other person is going to die, and that you're both going to lose everyone you love, and you don't know when. You've got this moment of life, this beautiful moment. This moment where your consciousness is bright, or it's not dimmed by morphine in the hospital on your last day among the living. And the sun is out. Or it's raining. Both are beautiful. And your spouse is alive. And your children are alive. And you're driving. And you're not in some failed state where civilians are being rounded up and murdered by the thousands. You're just running an errand. And that person in front of you, who you will never meet, whose hopes and sorrows you know nothing about, but which if you could know them you would recognize are impressively similar to your own, is just driving slow.
This is your life. The only one you've got. And you will never get this moment back again. And you don't know how many more moments you have. No matter how many times you do something, there will come a day when you do it for the last time. You've had a thousand chances to tell the people closest to you that you love them, in a way that they feel it, and in a way that you feel it, and you've missed most of them, and you don't know how many more you're going to get. You've got this next interaction with another human being to make the world a marginally better place. You've got this one opportunity to fall in love with existence. So why not relax and enjoy your life. Really relax. Even in the midst of struggle. Even while doing hard work. Even under uncertainty.
You are in a game right now. And you can't see the clock. So you don't know how much time you have left. And yet you're free to make the game as interesting as possible. You can even change the rules. You can discover new games that no one has thought of yet. You can make games that used to be impossible suddenly possible, and get others to play them with you. You can literally build a rocket to go to Mars so that you can start a colony there. I actually know people who will spend some part of today doing that. But whatever you do, however seemingly ordinary, you can feel the preciousness of life. And an awareness of death is the doorway into that way of being in the world.

Sam Harris, Making Sense #104, November 2017

Forced Convalescence

Forced convalescence and bed rest
Staring contest
With the ceiling and my feet
Was momentarily conscious
Of the backflips
I’ve been doing in my sleep
I’m not afraid of the future
Have to suffer and repeat
I tend to agree
What happens will be
Pain of my own making
Cut short by eternity

Now I’ve recovered completely
Life is easy
Hula-hooping around the sun
The calendar’s little boxes
All these presents
Get to open every one
I’ll be prepared for the winter
And the summer
And beyond
Just keep tagging along
Until the feeling is gone
Amazed by the haystack
Needle to oblivion

In a daze
In the doorway
I stood crying for what was
In a trance
In a taxi
Just keep driving please don’t stop
Out of the neighborhood, the multiverse

Iron and rust

Went out of town for the weekend
With my children
Built sandcastles in the sun
Catastrophizing my birthday
Turning forty
Ending up like everyone
There’s no escaping the housework
Or the bank clerk
Or the priest
They’re waiting for me
In my Egyptian sheets
The Seroquel’s working
It’s fighting my fantasies

In the dark
At a distance
I see everything at once
Feel the wind
Through the window
And I’m overcome with love
Inter-dimensional, no obstacles
Mountains and dust

Bright Eyes, "Forced Convalescence"