Some years ago, the daughter of an acquaintance of mine died by suicide. While her husband and children were out, she lit a hibachi in their living room and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The obituary her parents wrote said, quite truthfully, that she had succumbed after a long illness.
The recent suicide death of Gregory Eells, head of the University of Pennsylvania’s mental health services, brought to mind my friend’s comparison of lifelong mental illness with a chronic and ultimately terminal disease. In suicide prevention work, we say that many suicides can be prevented. Many, not most or all.
For some people, the lifelong challenges of a mind that berates, undermines, and negates their value as a human being is ultimately unbearable. No matter their outward signs of success, love, or accomplishment, they “know” themselves to be inferior, undesirable, unlovable. No matter the support they have in the form of medication, talk therapy, and interventions, like the Safety Planning Intervention developed by Gregory Eells’ colleagues at U of P that is proving so useful to many people living with anxiety and depression, the illness thrives at the expense of their well-being and life force.
We’ve come a long way in our attitudes toward mental illness and its compatriot, addiction, but we have a long way to go.
Myself, I struggle to accept the choices of the terminally ill who seek self-selected euthanasia under plans like Death with Dignity. I’m inclined to a world view that says life is what it is and is ours to experience no matter what. But when I encounter deaths like Eells’, I understand the analogy to terminal disease, that the suffering of acute, unrelenting mental illness can become too great. The prognosis unfavorable and unchanging. The best option to “shake off the mortal coil.”
What is the counterpart, for those with unrelenting mental illness, to hospice and end of life care available to the physically terminally ill? I only know that its foundation is compassion. We can no more blame those who succumb to mental illness than we can those who succumb to terminal illness of the body. We need to start loving, listening, and accepting that we cannot know another’s suffering, nor can we fix it. Our good intentions, pep talks, and interventions may, in the long run, only add to the weight of depression and anxiety. Not only does our loved one feel that the world would be better without them, but they carry the extra weight of our implicit message that they should be able to do something to make things different. Instead, our responsibility is to stand in compassion and serve the best we can as witnesses of life’s various ways of being.
The metaphysical poet, John Donne wrote “No man is an island. . . Every man’s death diminishes me.” Each is a cause for grief and contemplation of our own fragile mortality. “To live in this world,” the late Mary Oliver wrote, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” For me, this is sage advice for those of us who bear witness to friends and family for whom life is an insurmountable struggle, to love each other’s mortality and to hold it as our own. Our lives depend upon it.
Beetle, snake, apples. We walk single
file under willows, the dappled light
casting shadows. First the beetle, on its back,
and one side missing a few hairlike legs.
I flip it with the fine point of a pen revealing
its pale shell with elegant black stripes.
What to read in the moist spot it leaves
scuttling into the weeds? Immediately,
a slip of snake whips quickly into hedge,
slender tail a question mark, disappears.
Three small apples in a row far
from orchard. Four of us stepping
lightly on the concrete walk, stepping
lightly into the mystery of being
here together in this moment,
where everything is contained.
It is out of love for itself that Consciousness bodies itself forth as a universe.
Christopher Wallis, Tantra Illuminated
Last night, in town, a shed exploded and burnt a house to the ground.
Everything was lost except the cat and the owners and their faith
that things come around right as long as we’re alive and unharmed.
Today, I’m outside in the ninety-seven degree heat limbing the pines
that cluster on the south side of our land, the break between the ditch,
which burned last time, and the driveway, the last fuel-free space
before our barn. These trees bear scorch marks from the last fire
to climb our hill. They look like reptiles and smell like my deepest
memories of nature with their citrusy sap. Wielding my lopper
and pine saw—used at Christmas, and now, in fire season--
I slip among them murmuring words of love. They are good at surrender.
Bark, and green or dry wood yield easily and the limbs drop around me
like so many petals showered from the Mother’s hand above. In this way,
we become one. My hand on the smooth bark of their branches, and my hand
sawing away what will burn, harm, kill, their scent in my sweat like a lover.
Over the usual dry silence,
the million soft footsteps
of rain, exotic on this desert
summer Sunday. Awakening,
my mind reached out to cup
the din in the cistern of memory,
penetrated by recognition.
I unfurled from sleep,
from the deep fear of fire,
to the smokey grey sky
of cloud. Trees offset in limpid green,
their leaves bowed by the press
of wetness. The earth patters
beneath falling water, volume
increasing in sound and ground.
The generous eave built for snow,
where winter’s ice melts into spears,
this morning drips with summer’s
grateful tears. Runoff returns to river.
Reprieve from burn.
No matter what your political bent, most of us can agree that we are going through some tough times. Ideology can’t fix global warming, drought, rising seas, poverty, alienation, isolation, or a bevy of other social ills that cause many of us pain. What it does do, all too well, is create riffs between ourselves and others, whether they be strangers or family members. If they see the world differently from us, we see them as “other,” and, typically, as wrong.
Today is the eighth anniversary of my awakening as embodied consciousness. It’s been a wild unfolding over the last eight years. One of the cornerstones of my awakening was the unshakeable realization that there’s nothing that’s not God. This statement invariably brings up questions and complaints. Poverty is God? War? Rape? Incest? Genocide?
Yes; it’s a hard truth to grasp. But for me, and for a little over a thousand years of nondual Tantra, it is the truth to which one ultimately awakens if one realizes the elegant non-separateness of this path. Writing in Tantra Illuminated, Christopher Wallis anticipates the questions of those who find this precept difficult or impossible to grasp.
Why not create a universe in which suffering is not a possibility? This form of the question presumes a dualism between creator and created . . . If we alter it to the question of why the universe is created in such a way as to allow for the full range of possibilities, from the most horrific to the most sublime, then we have the sort of question that was of greater interest to the Tantric thinkers . . . It is out of love for itself that Consciousness bodies itself forth as a universe, and it is out of love that it allows for the total range of possibilities in that universe (because to negate any possibility would be to reject that aspect of itself.)
For me, this gets to the crux of the beauty of the Tantric path. When we realize Consciousness, when we fully embody it as that which arises fully and freely as and through everything that is, we can come to a place where making others wrong is a fool’s errand. Wallis says “differentiating those we wish to call ‘evil’ from those we wish to call ‘good,’ [reflects a] relative degree of ignorance of the true nature of reality.”
Judging is an innately human, maybe even incarnate, function of survival. Is this being I encounter my friend, or my foe? Predator or prey? Poison or nourishment? And this is important to our wellness of Being. But when we shift that simple and important act of discernment of duality to a world view, we are lost to the truth that everything we encounter is Consciousness manifesting as itself in limited form. It cannot be “wrong,” or “bad,” or even “right,” or “good.” It is Consciousness painting itself onto the canvas of itself. It is a continual unfolding of life’s arising as life. We are passengers, not drivers.
It’s normal to find others’ repugnant ideas off putting. But beneath that limited, localized perception, we can lean into and find the love that is at the core of everything that arises. The Christian Bible says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son.” This is the nature of Consciousness “bodying forth.” If we find fault with that, we are missing the point of being here. We’re missing the heartbreaking beauty of our human life purpose, to see, feel, live, and speak our truth in the midst of uncertainty. To stand together in the recognition of life’s unending paradoxes: loss and gain, love and hate, birth and death, sickness and health. We are not powerless if we rest in the truth of nondualism: there is nothing that is not Consciousness/God/the Universe. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” We are “under heaven,” here in this human realm seeking our divine nature, which lies in the realization of the Truth.
The boy cellist bows his neck
over the neck of his cello, his cut-velvet
hair catching July light
as he plays and sings Henrici Noel’s
Lamentatio. His teenaged voice
hovers over the chords while fingers
pound the stings and his bow arm
vibrates the shiny blue of his shirt.
Such a paradox this combination
of youth and grief; it plucks at my heart
like pizzicato, pulling out
all the love and loss of sixty years.
The cello is a serious business,
conjuring sounds from the lowest bass
to the highest range of the soprano.
All the young faces in their folding chairs
moving arms and bodies like a dance,
an ancient ritual, where sound
speaks in the words we’ve lost,
all the words we’ve not yet found.
It started with a lump in the throat,
the dog’s throat, to be exact. Lying
in the cool grass beneath the spent lilac,
I rubbed her neck and found it. Like a grape,
it rolled between my fingers. Cyst, I thought.
At the vet, a week later, it had grown pillow
like and the size of a coin purse. Nothing
to do but love her, which is easy as breathing,
but heavier now. The place in my chest where my heart
hangs beating out its life song
feels like a sack of cement. All the muscles
in my body slack and heavy. Outside,
she lies Sphinx-like between the Mock
Orange and Ponderosa Pine, the best
place to survey her domain. Thunder rumbles,
and somewhere, rain falls on the distant mountains
slaking the onset of drought. Like my tears
gathering in hidden places waiting to fall.
Nothing is last, nothing first.
Everything is a wheel. Here
and here and here with no room
for there. Even infinity is a loop
twisting back on itself. While dark,
also light. Up, also down. Try to mark
what ends from what starts, walk
on this spinning ball east to west
or north to south and the place you began
is also moving, like the horizon
out of reach. Stand still and ride
through the night sky that holds
the morning light. Morning,
the crescent moon hangs
like a comma in the sentence
of your life. Follow it.
In our Trillium Awakening path, we describe one of the early stages of the awakening processes as the rot, coming to the end of fixing strategies that we have followed in the hopes that we would somehow be better than we are.
We tend to dismiss the efficacy of fixing strategies because they distract us from the core wound, our existential, sense, shared by all humans, that there is something missing from or wrong with us. Instead of fixing, we focus on greenlighting, saying yes to all that is within and without, and from there, in the space that is created, we begin to integrate those aspects of ourselves that may feel wrong or bad.
The larger problem with fixing strategies comes from the word’s original and literal meaning: to fasten securely in a particular place or position. So essentially, when you try to fix yourself, you’re just keeping yourself stuck in some place from which you are ultimately trying to escape! What could be more counterproductive?
The more we focus on what we feel is wrong or missing with an aim to changing it, the more difficult we ultimately make it to accept. The more attention we bring to it, the more resistant it becomes to being integrated. Our resistance to acceptance is a kind of calcifying, we shore up the undesirable trait or conditioned response, and it gets stronger and harder to release. Attention to change underscores a deep sense that we are not okay, lovable, complete. When we try to fix ourselves, the very goal we seek gets harder and harder to achieve.
In Greek mythology, the gods are always trying to capture the human experience. Their immortality is a zero sum proposition. Nothing is ever lost, so nothing is ever gained. To be human is to be a constantly evolving mystery. When you deny the perfection of that mystery, you might as well stick your Self onto a pin and put your Self into a box as a perfectly preserved specimen. You kill off what is always emerging. Let go your desire to fix yourself, and fly free into your true and total nature.
Thanksgiving's not always the easiest holiday; there's a lot of history to consider, both personal and universal. Here's a short poem that reflects some of that.