I begin by pulling wild weeds and raking fallen leaves. I whisk a winter’s-full of caked loam from stone steps. The dirt provides my manicure and the sun warms and massages my stiff back. A deep breath, the first in many months, hands me softly-scented sweet air. My mind shifts. I step back from task complete, into stillness and contentment.
I have thought about religion and spirituality since I was a teenager. I’ve studied many belief systems, Buddhism most ardently, but none align with what I know to be true about nature and physics and the world. All belief systems asked me to suspend my other beliefs, in one way or another, from what I know, scientifically, to be true. I never know what box to check on my online dating profile – agnostic, atheist, other or that cryptic “spiritual but not religious”.
I believe in a higher order, but I don’t believe in a higher power. There is no god looking down upon us, with interest in each life, deciding our fate for us. I do, however, believe there is something much greater than “us” that we, as humans, have yet to understand. There is enough in our experiences here in our world to evoke awe. Look at us, look at our bodies – look at our circulatory system, look at our world and it’s shifting tectonic plates and variety of life, look at quantum physics and all that we still don’t understand, look at our universe and its potential for sustaining other life forms, and the fact that it may be expanding ad infinitum– or perhaps not at all. Is it all chaos or is it absolute and complete order? This is where my beliefs sit.
I cannot understand someone who prays over a deathly sick child and makes the justification that if he lives, then god must have heard the prayers and, if he dies, it was god’s will. Why, then, pray in the first place? It would all be god’s will, regardless of what happens. Do prayers work? Does focused intention work? There is research that says,“yes”, but perhaps that is part of the higher order and not higher power – that we can send positive, healing thoughts and energy towards someone or something that needs it. We don’t know the answer – I certainly don’t claim to know. We have yet to understand.
Is there life after death? I would be lying if I said that I knew – you would be lying if you said you knew FOR SURE. You can have very strong beliefs, but you will not KNOW until your time comes. We DO know that energy never dissipates so I’m hopeful that there is something else – either more or less than we have here, but do I imagine myself, with wings perhaps, sitting in absolute bliss at the feet of god? Well, that is just a fairy tale, in my eyes – a way to soothe our worried minds about what is to come after this short life.
I had a conversation with a friend last night that has left me raw and haunted this morning. We were talking about the death of loved ones, of course. Having never lost someone close, he was looking at it from a perfectly rational perspective: one has a shared story with someone, then that person is gone and, as the survivor, you alone carry on that story in your memory.
It’s not that simple though, is it? I’ve heard it said, “I lost a piece of myself when _______ died”. I was thinking about that sentiment last night. Have I lost a piece of myself? No, I’m still here, spiritually wounded and emotionally bruised and feeling a little hollow, but here.
The Buddhists speak about non-duality: there’s no “self”, there’s no “other”, only a single universe, or the “Is”…or whatever one wants to call it. I’ve always had difficulty with this concept, but it almost makes sense here. No, I didn’t lose my “self”, but lost two loved ones, my “others”. Even more importantly, I have lost a tertiary existence as well, the connection between us – the “Is”.
That connection is torn apart when a loved one dies and, we can try to be as rational as we like, but it still hurts and we grieve – yet we keep on going.
But, then again, the Buddhists teach non-attachement as well…
Him: I also hate [being] an artist and musician, because everything is so precious to us. I’ve seen Buddhist monks work on a sand mandala for 24 hours straight and then pour it into the ocean.
Me: Those darn Buddhists and their non-attachment. I used to call myself an ersatz Buddhist – until I realized just how difficult that really is. I’ll admit it – If I worked 24 hours bent over a sand mandala, I’d have to take photo – maybe even parade it around the room a few times – before I could dump it in the ocean. That’s an etch-a-sketch on a monumental level.
Him: I’d say that nurturing a dish in the kitchen, and then consuming it, is as close to pouring an un-photographed etch-a-sketch into the ocean as you can get.
My Buddhist friend calls the myriad of possessions, relationships, events and beliefs in our lives “transitory clouds in an illusory sky”.
I’m a dabbling Buddhist at best, but this statement has resonance.
If we think of these “things” as clouds – changing, disappearing, migrating – it makes the rollercoaster of life essentially bearable.
When unwanted or unexpected change rears its head, our first reaction is often to cling or clutch for what we know, for the comfortable. If we see the absurdity in this grasping at clouds, it allows us peace with these things we cannot control.
It’s perceptive to find delight in a cloud’s formation and just as foolish to mourn its passing.