Dieing well in America – Part I

I’m not a theist, as those of you who know me, or who’ve read a bit here, are aware, but things keep happening… things that make me wonder… well, that make me think that somehow ‘the universe’ … at least our little bit of the energy spectrum we like to think of as the universe … is involved. Is that a cautious enough description?

I know you skeptics dismiss all this as just pure coincidence, and there’s no arguing with that, it well could be, but sometimes it just seems… it just bloody seems that there’s some intention out there, some unexplained connections that wend things round to fall in our laps in ways that just don’t quite – compute.

But, here it is: Since I finished Die Wise earlier this week I’d been trying to sort out my reactions and understandings to the point I could blog a bit about it, as it has had a tremendous, powerful, upheaving kind of effect on me, and I did introduce it a bit in the last blog post on this thread, with my story of the death of Ma-mama, hoping to work into a little more discussion of the book itself in the next few days, but not knowing really how to take it on, as it’s so large in scope and really covers so many more things about our lives than just the idea of how we die, tho that is central to everything.

And then, in The Sun magazine which just came this week is an interview with the author, Stephen Jenkinson. An interview in which he succinctly explains many of the things that are woven into the complex narrative form of the book, and will make it much easier for me to get a handle on what he’s actually saying here. An interview which is profoundly powerful and moving itself.

So, of course, the interview and the writing of the article and it’s printing etc. were clearly all done long before I began to want to try to write about it… but, it is just so interesting that all this concatenation occurs … and it just makes me wonder. Because I don’t think that it was my wanting it or needing it that made it appear, that’s too facile. What I think is that all of this is of a piece and is all part of some fabric, some whole cloth in which I am a single thread.

I weave. I write, I love the coincidence that makes me part of this life.

I will be transcribing from the article here, as The Sun is not online. (In fact, its Reader’s Write feature just began this month accepting digital entries!) For those of you who bother to read this but take exception to Jenkinson’s perspective, please realize that this is all deeply complex and to understand it requires immersion in the depth of it, which any simple format makes difficult. The book is heavily dependent on story, and the full grasp of much of what he says builds through the experiential power of those stories. Don’t dismiss this. It is a message of profound meaning for our world today, and deserves full consideration.

So. What does he say? He says first of all that he is primarily a farmer. Though I’m not a farmer, this resonates with me deeply, as I come from farmer folk, and some of my dearest friends are farmers. I know this will be understood at least by them.

When the interviewer asks if he has a ‘daily practice’ this is his reply:

Daily practice isn’t a term I use, so my first answer would be no. What I do principally is farm. The farm is everything. We have quite a few animals, and they all have to be tended. When you enter into that contract of disarray called the ‘domestication of animals,’ you might not know what you’re signing up for, but you soon find out. Your job is to compensate the animals for what you’re asking of them: that they not run away; that they reproduce on your doorstep; and that they more or less submit to the knife or the bullet when the time comes. That’s the story of domestication. And your job as a farmer is to make it close to a fair deal.

If I have a practice, that would be it: to try to hold up my end of that bargain. And I do the same with the plants on my farm. Crops can be just as easily enslaved and abused as animals – and typically are.

We have our daily rounds on the farm. Whatever general mayhem arises, you’ve got to respond to it. Right now we’re in a season of heavy change. At night it can be very cold, and there’s no forage in the fields or in the pasture. If you’re asking animals to reproduce, you’ve got to make sure they’re well fed.

I think this is what you might mean by ‘spiritual”: the willingness to be cognizant of these situations and to carry the thread of grief that’s stitched into them. Domestication darkens the doorstep of all involved. Leaning to farm means never escaping from that grief. Just because you’ve figured out what these animals need in order to procreate doesn’t mean you’re the boss. It means you’re pleading with them to do so. And feeding them well is part of your end of it. It’s a subtle exchange. I believe the animals know at some level what’s going on, but they know it from an animal’s perspective, not from a human’s perspective. There’s a kind of uneasy statement of intent that flows back and forth. On a farm the connection between death and life is clear, but in most of the culture a deep understanding of death doesn’t enter into people’s choices of their manner of life or how they educate their kids or what they say yes or no to.

North Americans need a great awakening. What we thought was so isn’t so; what we once believed to be true isn’t true and never was. Here are some of the lies we’re told: ‘There’s enough for everybody; we’ve just got a distribution problem. As long as we pay the sticker price for something, we’re entitled to have it. We get a vote in anything of real significance or importance. Dying is a rupture in the natural order of things.’

With any luck at all, before you’re thirty-five or forty, you wake up and realize that none of this is so. It never was.

Authentic Living #5

Authentic living begins with recognition of the illusions that dominate our thinking. We have all been programmed.

The more solid, affluent, and stable your upbringing, the more effective your programming likely was. All those rewards and punishments… all those sweet succorings… piles and piles of bullshit heaped on your head so that your thinking now stinks with the profound and deep corruption and degradation of it all.

And the name of all that programming is simple: separation.

As I outlined in the previous essay, we are taught, nay, conditioned, to believe that ours is a realm of ultimate dualities: mind and body, matter and spirit, good and bad; the idea that we as humans and as individuals are separate from nature, from each other, from God, even from the very universe itself. Separate in some kind of very special way that allows us to be as nasty as we like to each other, to the Earth, to other species – with impunity.

This cultural programming leaves us incapable of compassion and locked into some notion of spirituality as obeisance to a being outside of the natural order, subservience to some wholly ‘other’ deity who lives in a realm beyond matter. Outside this spirituality, we are left with meaningless lives in a meaningless universe of blind accident and rigid causation. This duality has driven us insane.

It drives the shallow, fearful, materialistic lives we lead, it engenders our selfish justifications of our poor treatment of others, it fosters endless violence, war, and genocide, and most recently it has produced the conditions that are the continuing ruination of the biosphere.

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Our survival as a species, and likely the survival of the biosphere itself, depends on transcending this conditioning, this hammered-in notion of our dualistic nature in a dualistic universe.

Charles Eisenstein, author of several books on the insanities of modern civilization – most recently The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible – articulates the need for deep change as eloquently as anyone I’ve read. Eisenstein identifies a number of fallacies in the ideology of control, which is our dominant cultural feature and derives from the belief in our separate, discrete existence.

Speaking of ecological problems as one example, he says we tend to think we can fix things by identifying the ‘cause.’ “Fine,” he continues, “but what if the cause is everything? Economy, politics, emissions, agriculture, medicine  …   all the way to religion, psychology, our basic stories through which we apprehend the world? We face then the futility of control and the necessity for transformation.”

And how is this transformation to be realized? Eisenstein says:

We need to rediscover the mind of nature, to return to our original animism and the ensouled universe it perceived. We need to understand nature, the planet, the sun, the soil, the water, the mountains, the rocks, the trees, and the air as sentient beings whose destiny is not separate from our own.

In language reminiscent of Matthew 25:40 – And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me – Eisenstein says this transformation must reach deep. “We and Earth are one. As above, so below: what we do to each other, even to the smallest animal or plant, we do to all creation.” Including ourselves. This is transformation that goes deeper than most of what passes for ‘alternative’ or ‘radical’ strategies; it is a transformation of our deepest knowing.

Eisenstein also invokes the concept of “interbeing”, which I first encountered in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk whose Buddhism is strongly influenced by the Theravada tradition that dominates in southeast Asia.

Interbeing – as the neologism suggests – is the idea that everything that exists is intricately and intimately interconnected at the level of its very existence.

This idea is drawn from ancient Buddhist teachings about impermanence and emptiness. Buddha described existence in terms of paticca samuppada – a Sanskrit term which in simplest translation means “the dependent co-arising of phenomena.” In other words, everything has come into being in ways that are dependent on everything else. Nothing exists separately, independently, discretely. The deeper implication is that we don’t live in a universe in which things can be divided up into sacred and profane, holy and worldly, spiritual and material, but rather, everything is sacred, and we are all spirit.

Writer Joanna Macy says that paticca samuppada is what the Buddha awoke to; it is the content of his enlightenment.

This notion is also inherent in Christian teachings, though it has for the most part been lost. A primary Christian doctrinal proposition is that Christ was (is) “wholly human, wholly divine.” And Christ said, “I and the Father are One.”

This concept appears in the later, more philosophical Buddhist teachings as the idea of ‘emptiness’ – which means, as I presented in the original post on this blog, that “everything in existence, including you and me, is void or ‘empty’ of an inherent self-nature because everything is so intricately and inextricably linked with everything else that there is really only one thing and this is it, you are it, God is it, I am it, your toenail clipping on the floor under the bed from last week is it, and so… absolutely anything and everything that exists or happens or appears was, is, and will always be infinitely and completely wonderful, exquisite and delightful.”

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Clearly this is not a concept that one can arrive at very easily through our normal logical processes, and certainly not when one is as strongly conditioned as most of us have been to see the world in a dualistic way. In order to have a strong, clear understanding of interbeing, it seems that some kind of deep transformational experiences are required, the kinds of experiences that come from long, deep meditation and other intense spiritual practices.

But the experience of this notion in a direct, undeniable way will transform your thinking and your very mode of being in the world.

It is this transformation, not some bland experience of calm peacefulness, which is the point of the kind of meditation the Buddha describes and what has been taught in the few Buddhist traditions that have preserved Buddha’s original intent.

It is this transformation that is required to truly live authentically in the world as it exists today.