A fine way to die

When I was about six years old, my maternal grandmother died.

I remember the ride from Valdosta, Georgia to Dixie, Georgia for the funeral, with my mother crying and my father quiet and serious. I remember that we passed a cemetery as we were leaving town, and I realized that the two things were connected, though I wasn’t sure just how.

I’m pretty sure my parents explained to me that Ma-mama had died, though how they explained that I don’t remember. She was not very old, in her early 60’s I think, she was not sick, and her death was unexpected. She went out to get a bucket of coal for the coal grate one night and never came back into the house.

She was very dear to me, a kind, sweet woman with long silver braids that she usually wore coiled on her head. I only remember seeing her with her hair down once, standing in front of her mirror brushing it out before bed. I think I remember it so clearly because she turned and looked at me, smiling as I watched her brush her hair, a smile full of the warmth and love that defines her in my mind.

I don’t remember what she said to me, but I remember well the soft voice speaking my name, ‘Johnny!’

I also remember very clearly Ma-mama in her casket. It is one of the transcendent experiences of my life, perhaps a seminal experience in my emotional development.

In the way of things in those saner times, Ma-mama lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse where she had lived most of her life, the house my mother and all her five siblings were born in, and all her family and friends were there together. When we arrived, my parents I suppose were swept into the crowd there, leaving me standing there alone looking up at the casket. The casket was surrounded by a brilliant white light from the white-curtained windows behind it, a light that in my young mind was the light of very God himself shining down on my grandmother.

I had always, as a child, thought that the striated rays of sunlight shining through broken clouds – the phenomena many of the old folks called Jacob’s Ladder – was God. I’m not sure what parts of my religious experience in the Sunday Schools of the Southern Baptist Church had created that notion in my young mind, nor am I sure when it was dispelled, but it was an a priori belief for me.

So clearly, the light around my grandmother was God. That seemed quite natural and proper to me, as she was probably the most Godly, saintly, Christian – in all the truest senses of those terms – that I knew. And somehow, because of that light I was able to accept my grandmother’s death, despite being surrounded by the sadness and sense of tragic loss that filled the room.

Though the memory is not so clear, I know that my parents lifted me up and let me gaze into the casket, into the gray and lifeless face that even in death was as sweet as any I’ve seen, and that also helped me understand what was going on there. Helped me understand that, as my young son said when his great-grandmother died, “She can’t talk anymore.”

I have just today finished reading a powerful and life-changing book, Die Wise by Steven Jenkinson, and all through the reading I have had this growing sense that somehow, my upbringing, my experiences, had given me a wider perspective on death than seems to be common, at least based on his characterizations of how our culture views death.

As I’ve mulled over that, the clear sweet memories of my grandmother and her dying came to me, and I realized that from that early age, I was allowed to be in the presence of death, allowed to look at it straight on, rather than shielded from it and protected from the knowledge of its universality. Though my parents surely ascribed to the “better place” mythology their religion taught them, they never let that become denial of the reality that the person who dies is gone, never resorted to the total euphemisms that seem to be prevalent in our society.

When someone died, they said so, and I understood what that meant from earliest consciousness. I think that has stood me in good stead through the many deaths that I have seen in my life, and I hope that it will continue to help me walk into the ever closer deaths that advancing age brings my way.

I hope that it helps me learn to live, for the remainder of my years, in a way that will allow me to die wise.

Barbara’s kensho

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, is being wonderful! Not far into it, but I am finding it fascinating, funny, and astounding all at once.

The heart of the story is her early adolescent quest for Truth, and the “mystical experiences” that seemed to attend that search. Growing up in an entirely skeptical, atheist family, she was disinclined to accept anything remotely religious in nature, so discounted these experiences at the time, and only recently – the last few years – has come to reconsider what they mean. The book is her coming to terms with those experiences, and the general quest which she recorded in a diary of sorts.

This description of her first “experience” is so near to my own that I felt I must include it here:

And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word “tree” was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance— the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, because this substance, this residue, was stolidly, imperturbably mute. The interesting thing, some might say alarming, was that when you take away all human attributions— the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action— that when you take all this away, there is still something left.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2014-04-08). Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything (pp. 47-48). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

My own similar experience, as a considerably older seeker, is recorded in the earlier entry here as “Kensho, Krishnamurti and New Mexico“.

Barbara Ehrenreich on mystical experience

This is an interview with Barbara on her recent book _Living with a Wild God_. The interview is wonderful, can’t wait to read the book!

“Well I think the tragic thing about monotheism—and also about science, as I lump them together here—is they require that the rest of the world be dead. There’s this famous quote from Plutarch where a ship is going by and they hear the cry, “The great god Pan is dead,” and that marks the fact that the pantheon of the Greek gods has now given way, or will give way soon, to the risen Jesus, to this one-or-sometimes-three-part god. So, monotheism, all the other spirits and gods—done. And science! The Cartesian worldview is that the world is dead, except for human consciousness. It was only in the last twenty years or so that science began to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of animals. And creativity. So I find the two kind of similar. As compared to a worldview more like my own, where it’s not all dead. There’s a lot going on. It’s a happening place.”

The online magazine is interesting also.

http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/witness/its-the-world-thats-strange/

Buddhist Christians…

Interesting article on the Buddhist Broadcasting Network – I didn’t even know Buddhists broadcasted! – about Christians finding support for living authentic lives, and support for their Christianity, in Buddhist teachings and practice.

I found this sentence especially interesting:

Sandra turns to Buddhism because she believes that its teaching of no-ego or no-self, when understood experientially and not just intellectually, is itself an essential dimension of the journey to God.

Sandra is a Catholic nun who leads retreats. She says:

“Christianity and Buddhism agree that the spiritual pilgrimage involves an absolute letting go, or dropping away, of all that a person knows of self and God. Indeed, this is what happened in Jesus as he lay dying on the cross, and perhaps at many moments leading up to the cross. Only after the dying can new life emerge, in which there is in some sense ‘only God’ and no more ‘me.’ I see the cross as symbolizing this dying of self and resurrecting of new life that must occur within each of us. Buddhism helps me enter into that dying of self.”

I do think that there are some important theoretical and practical differences between Christianity and Buddhism, but it is interesting to read about these parallels and how non-dogmatic Christians are learning to access these helpful things from the old guy’s teachings!

The illusion of separation

[The Signal Blanket: Danger! By Paul Goble, The Coming of the Iron Horse]

How can we live authentically, fully human, fully divine, following a path of right living, in this world of seemingly insurmountable problems – violence, hatred, degradation, destruction?

The problems in our world today all begin with our mistaken idea that we humans are special, and special in a very special way, special because we are separate from the rest of the natural world, separate from each other. We even divide mind from body within ourselves.

This notion of the discrete, separate, independently existing self is deeply embedded in our culture, including our language, and thus embedded in all our ways of thinking – so much so that it’s difficult to talk about it clearly. It’s even more difficult to get people to think about it clearly.

Just the words “nature” and “environment” seem to imply that this separation is normal, that this is “just the way it is”. We don’t see that these words encode a dualistic world-view, a basic assumption that has grown stronger and stronger as our societies took step after step away from the connections with our intimate nature, beginning with language and symbolic culture and expanding with quantification, agriculture, science, and industry.

I have addressed the issue of separation and connection in an earlier blog post, but this is such a difficult issue to discuss that I think it’s worth a second, mostly new, approach.

Why is the idea of separation important and how is it related to our discussion of living authentically?

First, because we believe ourselves to be discrete, separate, independently existing entities, we see “nature” – all other beings and processes – as “resources” – things for our human use, to be controlled and subjugated for our purposes, and having no essential worth or meaning otherwise. Thus, as this idea has grown in strength and influence over human culture, our impact on the earth has been more and more harmful. Today we callously and arrogantly threaten the very biosphere that supports our life.

Second, because of this idea of separate-ness, we think we can behave in pretty much any way we like towards other humans and not really suffer any consequences. Competition – the whole “every man for himself” ethos – arose out this notion, as did the ideas of possession and property. Which leads pretty quickly to murder, war, torture, genocide, and all the other forms of violence that are endemic today. (Only because we are threatened by some outside power if we don’t do “right” is there reason to do otherwise, so when that belief in an outside power wanes, all kinds of horrors arise.)

Third, this conception of self causes us to misinterpret most of what has come down to us in the spiritual realm. We set ‘God’ outside of matter, outside the very universe, in some realm of ‘other’; earlier humans clearly saw God as in matter, in everything. We misunderstand the idea of animism as meaning that things have a spirit when it really means everything is spirit. We think, or believe, that we have a soul, and this soul is what’s important so we disregard the body. Or else we don’t believe that we have a soul, and thus we live only for the body. Either way, we’re equally lost, because we don’t understand that we are soul, we are spirit. This separation of the sacred from the everyday world again leads us to feel free to exploit that world of matter, that world of “other” to our own ends without regard for our impact; it allows us to set up one version of morality in the spiritual realm and another one for the material.

Fourth, we are unable to have true compassion for others within this dualistic conception of self/other. What passes for compassion in most of our religious or secular conceptions today is a weak notion of what we “should” do – either out of fear of punishment or desire for rewards – in this life or the next – or out of a wish to elevate ourselves in our own eyes and the eyes of our brothers and sisters.

——

All of these various ideas blend and intertwine in our ways of thinking and in our actions individually and collectively, creating a human culture that wreaks untold havoc on itself, on all the other living beings on the planet, and on the very underpinnings of life itself, ruining and despoiling not only the world but each other and ultimately ourselves.

To live authentically in this world, in this human culture, we must find a way to transcend its influence, to slough off the conditioning that tells us we must claw our way to the top of the pile, gathering more and more of the world unto ourselves, insulating ourselves from others and from the world out there with yet more and more comfort, security, pleasure and excess.

The first, essential, step is to see through the illusion.

Beyond the pale

During college, as my awareness of the world of events and the world of ideas grew, my drift away from the faith of our fathers became a waterfall, and an intro philosophy course pushed me over it. I suppose much of my original skepticism was fueled by objection to the moralistic code that came along with church, but by this time I had cleared that hurdle and found an even stronger basis for morality in rational humanism.

I began to study history and to read widely, and realized at some point that I no longer had any doubts about my ideas concerning the existence of God. It just seemed clear to me that it was a pretty foolish notion. It wasn’t so much that it couldn’t be proved, it was just that it didn’t seem to fit the case of existence as I had experienced it.

This created something of a break with my family, though they didn’t stop loving me or accepting me, they just were very unhappy with me. It was just something that my parents and all their contemporaries found incomprehensible. They had never expected a child of theirs to go beyond the pale. I was the first among the cousins, as far as I know, to openly flout the whole Judeo-Christian tradition in this way, and they were just shocked and disappointed.

But I managed to graduate despite my moral decay, and found myself in a moral quandary. Having graduated and passed my Army physical, and with no exemptions left, I was prime draft bait for the Vietnam War, as it was called. I considered myself a pacifist, but without a religious community to support me I had no basis to claim exemption due to opposition to war.

Not that being a Baptist would have helped a whole lot. It was pretty much “Quakers only” in the pacifist exemption department. (I had never heard of the Koinonia Community in Georgia at that point.) I considered Canada for some time, but I just couldn’t go that far. It wasn’t the geographical distance that stopped me, but the personal and emotional distance that step would have put between my family and me. Especially my father. Daddy was a WWII veteran, a navigator in the Army Air Corps, and spent 15 months in a German POW camp.

Leaving the Baptist Church was one thing, leaving the country to avoid the war was another. Maybe it was the cumulative effect. Maybe it was all those years of war stories. I just couldn’t do it.

I began to look into the Air Force – Daddy’s preference – and though I was drafted by the Army, was able to enlist in the Air Force and eventually get a slot in OTS, as a pilot. I foolishly thought, oh cool, become an Air Force pilot, then I won’t have to go to the war. Not.

It was 1969 when I entered, and they were going through pilots like popcorn in a movie theater. Well before my year of pilot training was over, I knew I was headed for Vietnam. I was just praying they wouldn’t ask me to drop any bombs or shoot at anyone.