Practicing Death

I banged the knocker. The large old wooden door opened immediately and I was greeted by a lithe woman holding an umbrella ready to exit into the drizzle of Paris. A vague association to Mary Poppins rolled through my mind. ‘You know where everything is, it’s yours until Tuesday morning’; it was Thursday or maybe Friday.

I made my way up the narrow stairs to the attic, pulled a thin mat out of the cabinet and collapsed onto the zendo floor.

It had been a 13 year journey, culminating in a year that included the collapse of the Zen center, parting with my teacher and ‘family’ of the past 7 years, the appearance of a muse and now, witnessing my own death.

The first domino had fallen in Paris in January, so it was only fitting that it would end there as well. The fact there was Antwerp, Amsterdam, Ameland, Las Vegas, Maui, London, Bermuda and Amsterdam again in between was just how life had flowed.

Kill the self, is a common refrain in Zen and when I hit the floor it was all but done. The death had been building all year and began in earnest while in Bermuda and I innately knew the urgency. After returning to London it was a mad dash to Amsterdam to make my way north to a traditional Zen center there. The sittings were excruciating, the pain was like no physical pain I had ever felt. This was a psychic pain as the tentacles of self were extracted from where they were rooted. I am sure I appeared irrational, yet I was well aware of what was happening, I just had no idea how it would unfold.

I would be well taken care of through the process here, but the instincts of an old dog or cat to crawl off and die kicked in. I needed less caring, fewer eyes, I needed to be moving. I left the haven I had chosen logically, walked to the local train station and boarded the first train that came.

I looked like shit and tears continued to trickling at a constant pace as they had been for a few days now. The tears had no meaning , I was just leaking. Everything is vague, but there were many trains through the Holland countryside, before I ended up on an express to Nord from Amsterdam Central. I arrived in a drizzling rain early in the morning and made my way to the old wooden door.

The best thing about a proper Zen center is, going through stuff is what they are for.

There is not much more I can say after hitting the mat, St. John of the Cross calls these Dark Nights for a reason. All senses gone, all is dark. When awareness finally flickered again in the process, the first order of business I recall was whether I wanted to return or not.

I recall going one by one through traits; if I was going to return it would be on different terms. Foremost, I recall that I no longer wanted to be an expert. After going through the catalog of traits, then it was Why? Why would I go back?

Ultimately, I decided I needed closure with my wife, after 30 years, dying here and by my owned decision seemed unfair. When the center collapsed, for purposes unrelated to us, we had went separate ways and had not seen each other for almost a year. The pace of return picked up after this, it had been roughly 72 hours.

I seemed no worse for wear as I arose. Things were very quiet inside, like briefer experiences during practice in the past, but this was not fleeting it was solid. My senses were acute, but their ability to spur thoughts and feelings was sparing. I cleaned up and made my first appearance.

The best thing about a proper Zen center is, going through stuff is what they are for. No crisis had occurred and therefore there were only questions about my current needs.

I assured everyone I was well and quickly headed out into the world, this constant urge to move still persists. I caught a train to an area I will call south of the Louvre, where it being December there was a large seasonal Christmas village of shops with all the lights and trimming. This was a fantasy like setting to begin with, let alone in my new state. All my senses were crisp and they danced across the silent background, from sound to lights to smells, it was childlike.

At some point my attention went to an object on the ground and I picked it up. I was immediately struck by not having a label for it. More striking however was that the usual internal chatter of figuring out what it was or what it might be used for was gone. Huh … this is being truly present. I had no connection to it so I tossed it back to the ground and continued to walk on.

From this space of ‘being’, the unimaginable complexity and realms of this thing we call the human condition opened for experiencing and exploration.

It has been seven years since this occurred. Without a self, we can only lay on the floor, so a re-making was necessary. The self that re-emerged is much like Humpty Dumpty after the fall. Pasted together with spit and glue, parts missing, not fragile, not solid or not fixed.

With this self-lite in place, new aspects of practice unfolded in rapid procession and an appreciation of the unknown space that held me during this entire experience has emerged. From this space of ‘being’, the unimaginable complexity and realms of this thing we call the human condition opened for experiencing and exploration. These are tantalizing stories, but actually no different than the one left behind on the zendo floor.

I have revisited this dropped-off-self state multiple times since. It is no longer interesting, the self, regardless of its make-up always struggles, that is how ‘human’ works. You can call it Original Sin or Dukkha, but it is all the same.

With the experienced perspective of ‘being’ catching up to the fifty year perspective of ‘human’, life now continues in an endless integration of paradox. The daily routines for maintaining food, shelter and clothing juxtapositioned against not-knowing, impermanence and karma unfolding; make up my days.

No dramatic ending or call to live a certain way here. Some moments are light and lively, others pass by, some are dreary … none last long. The wisdom passed down through millennia of Zen is:

“Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Awaken! Awaken! Do not squander your life.”

May your life go well,