Death is not Pain

Like a lot of my family, I have spent the last few days dreading April 20th. Wondering how am I going to get through, what am I going to do, how am I going to cope.

4x60000076AIt’s funny how we are conditioned to remember things. I will probably always remember this day as the day my dad died – but despite all my expectations, I have not yet felt any pain on this day. Even the first time three years ago there was no pain – just numbness (and alarm, as my mother’s black eye proved – sorry, mum). Last year I was lucky enough to be with someone who spent the entire day having fun with me. But this year, I was faced with spending the whole day at a yoga studio (meditative by nature) and then the evening in the empty house as my mum and my brother are at Penn State. I was expecting to wake up in a terrible mood, fumble through my teaching, come home, and binge on Indian food while watching Monty Python and old home videos…

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Certainty

 

Certainty is a fascinating notion because no matter how sure you are, there’s always a chance something else will happen simply due to the chaotic nature of the universe.  By definition, the most certainty you can ever have is the thing you control the most: I choose to define that as inner wisdom, essence, what makes us who we are. It will undoubtedly be questioned under duress but when cultivated, it’s the most reliable principle we have – even if you define yourself as the most chaotic factor in the equation you can at least be relied upon to be chaotic.  It’s no secret that I’m fairly erratic in my lifestyle, but I still find comfort in it.

Most people who don’t have many certainties are early on the path of discovering who they really are, but we also encounter people who are overly certain – they don’t have many certainties, but they also don’t have many uncertainties (perhaps those who define certainty as having a job and other things in the world they feel they can rely upon). Logically this would mean they are closing themselves off from becoming more evolved beings, but living on a single level with complete certainty of who they are is a perfectly valid choice.

We are born with characteristics to discover about ourselves – if we don’t like them then we can endeavor to change them or we can learn to live with them.  We also have spaces which can be filled with certainties as we establish them.  Because certainties are consciously made decisions, they define us more than characteristics do.  But once we have answered one question with a certainty, we create spaces for many more – so really, the people with the most certainties are also the people who are the least certain.

Why Skipping New Year’s Resolutions is a Great Decision

…And no, the answer is not “so I can keep making bad decisions all year.”

First of all, I love everything about resolutions.  Resolving to do something means you have made a decision to challenge yourself.  Being resolute means you believe in something strongly.  If you have resolved a problem, you have accomplished something.  All of these are wonderful, positive things.  

So why do we only do it once a year?  It’s not that I am opposed to deciding to change your life on the first of January each year.  I’m opposed to not trying to change your life for the better on every day of each year.  The implication of New Year’s resolutions is that you only make them once each year – and that will make for a very static 365.25 days.  

New Year’s is a pretty arbitrary time to make a resolution – there’s no change in season, nothing exciting really happens for any time in the foreseeable future, and most cultures celebrate a New Year on day just as random as ours.  Any psychologist, life coach, businessperson, or generally successful human will tell you that in order to successfully impact a change on your life, you need an incentive.  Unless you really like the number 14, changing your calendar is a pretty poor one.  Also, a year is a really long time to enact most resolutions – really, you’re setting yourself up to procrastinate.  And lastly, making New Year’s resolutions is such a traditional thing to do that most people don’t even put any thought into it, much less a plan (another thing you need in order to succeed at just about anything, by the way).  

I’m not saying New Year’s Eve isn’t a great time for some reflection – but any time is a great time for reflection, and ideally it would happen more than once each year.  Like everyone else, I lead a busy life and often I need something to remind me to stop for a minute and think of how far I’ve come – and how far I still have to go.  Usually that happens when someone asks me for my “professional opinion” (or I find myself on a plane towards New Jersey), but if looking at the calendar and noticing it’s the 31st December is your motivation then that’s great too.  

Similarly, you should make resolutions any time you feel your life needs a change. I make resolutions on a daily basis, and I tend to be pretty successful with them.  My most successful resolution was made a few years ago.  On 8 February 2009 I decided I was going to go to the gym every day – and I kid you not, unless it was closed or I was off travelling the far corners of the world, I have been to the gym every single day since then (even a gaping wound in my ankle didn’t stop me from a gentle yoga practice).  Sure, the date is just as arbitrary as 1 January, but something that day got me to make that decision and stick with it.  That is a resolution that happened to stay  –  but not all resolutions should.  

As I mentioned before, sticking with one idea for 365 days would make for a static year.  Making a decision with the intent of keeping it for a full year is setting yourself up for failure not only because a year is a long time, but because if your life changes and your resolution is no longer relevant, you will see it as a failure.  I became a vegan about a year ago because I thought it would make my singing voice clearer – sort of important for someone studying to be a professional vocalist.  It was great, and it worked while I was living alone and always cooking for myself.  But now that my situation is different, it’s no longer conducive to my lifestyle.  Had I said “I am never going to eat anything with milk ever again,” I would be feeling pretty down on myself. New Year’s resolutions simply do not allow for the flexibility we need in our lives.

On that note, I would like to wish you all a wonderful, prosperous year and beyond.  I hope you skip the guilt-ridden New Year’s resolutions and instead choose to spend some time reflecting on everything you have and have yet to accomplish 🙂

Mementos

I have a very strong aversion to clutter.  I frequently assess everything I own and chuck large portions of it into a charity bin.  Why I do this I couldn’t tell you; I admit that it is indeed a bizarre habit especially in an American culture where things define who you are and having more always seems to be better.  If I had to guess, I would say this proclivity is rooted in the notion that I like to be ready to flee the country or make a major life change at any given moment, and having to choose which things to bring would slow me down immensely.  I mean seriously, I have my passport with me at all times and if you say “let’s go to Ecuador right now” I would not hesitate to get on the next plane out of Newark- I’ve done it before and I wouldn’t think twice before doing it again.

But I digress.

Today, I was enlisted by my mum to assist with de-cluttering on a massive scale in our attic.  She had attempted this before but could never decide what to get rid of- however after about an hour I had torn through half the place leaving about a dozen big black rubbish bags in my wake.  Clearly, it is not difficult for me to throw away things that “have memories.”

Think about that.  “Things that have memories.”  Isn’t that a strange concept?  Of course things don’t have memories.  People have memories, but because our minds are so full of other mundane nonsense, we forget them.  To try to avoid forgetting our experiences, we trap them inside things. A ticket stub from a concert reminds us of great music; a dried corsage brings memories of prom weekend.

Three thoughts on this: First, if something was that memorable, how could you possibly forget it?  Perhaps it wouldn’t be in the front of your mind often, but the memory of an amazing experience should be burned into your mind.  Second, how often do you dig through your stuff to go through mementos and reminisce, and lastly does it make you happy?  Obviously I speak only for myself, but when I used to go through boxes of old stuff, it usually made me sad to think of times gone by rather than happy to think of good things that happened.  After I realised this, I went through my then-sizable collection of random stuff that evoked memories and instantly weeded out any that didn’t make me remember something positively delightful.  All I was left with were some old student IDs that showed the amusing progression of the enormous amount of hair I’ve cultivated on my head, a dog chain that I used to wear all throughout high school, and one of my dad’s old shirts.  I kept them because it seemed right, but I can honestly say that even these items I don’t think I would miss.

It may seem foolish to try to forget anything negative that happened, but we’re not really defined by them, are we?  We’re defined by how things that transpired resulted in our developing as humans.  We can’t control what happens, but we control how we process it- and going back to dwell on and re-process events will rarely change anything.  I find that happy memories stick with me regardless of whether or not I have physical evidence of them.  And even better, they get evoked unexpectedly by random events- it’s more common for me to hear a song that reminds me of a really fun night I had or to smell something that reminds me of a special person than for me to go digging through a box yearning for memories of days gone by.

To me, the ideal human condition involves total lack of attachment to physical things and the ability to navigate the world without any baggage.  Our concrete past doesn’t have nearly as much bearing on who we are as people as what we learned from it does.  Memories are nice, but they’re little more than an animal instinct- simply put, even a dog can remember being fed and associate its food bowl with mealtime.  Our true advantage as humans is our ability to remember that we liked Indian food last time we tried it, and to find a new restaurant with similar cuisine; to process the past in a way that allows us to gain a greater understanding of the world we live in- why waste time re-learning things you’ve already done through a box of old junk?

Travelling

I have always loved travelling.  Recently, however, my wanderlust has been particularly strong.  Since 2009, my international travels have included the Bahamas, India twice (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Shekhawati, Dharamsala, and Bir), Scotland (Edinburgh, Loch Lomond), the Netherlands, Spain (Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona),  Italy, France, England (London, Rye, Kent, Wadhurst), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg), and the Dominican Republic.  In less than 2 weeks I graduate, and two days afterwards I will be off again- starting in London and then most likely heading to Greece (Mykonos or Kos), Morocco (Fez), and the Czech Republic (Prague).

Whew.  Considering I’ve done all that while being a full-time student and also holding jobs, that’s not too shabby.

Edinburgh

Climbing the mountain by Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh

Most people want to travel, I don’t think I’m any different in that respect.  The difference is that with me it’s a borderline compulsion.  I find a way to do it even if it means not buying groceries or textbooks or selling half my possessions on Ebay.

Why?  Good question.  I have had many conversations with many people about why I have a constant need to travel.  I think a large part of it is that I feel as though I am a citizen of the world, not any one place.  I don’t necessarily identify with any one culture, though there are some that I prefer to immerse myself in over others.  I love to see how humans in different locations have built unique societies and have such diverse ways of life- I find it astonishing that one species can develop such different cultures based on their geographic locations.  I also love seeing the natural world and all it has to offer.

Is there a deeper reason for my waywardness?  Some say I’m running from something, others think I’m chasing it.  I honestly don’t know.  I’ve always wanted to travel and the only thing holding me back was lack of means.  My mum will tell you that as soon as I got a job and had a car, I was never home.  I don’t often feel a pull to any specific place, it’s more that I’m constantly fighting some sort of force that’s trying to pick me up and bring me somewhere, anywhere.

Regardless of whether or not I’m fleeing or chasing, I still find travelling extremely neccessary.  I think it’s important to be aware of other cultures, other people’s perceptions of the world, and just the phenomenal gift that is life.  Think about it, though: self-awareness.  What a concept.  We are all a part of something greater, there is some sort of force that holds us here.  Self-awareness isn’t just awareness of your own being, but also everyone else’s and how we’re all intertwined.  There’s a sense of unity that I find when I’m outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s sitting in an airport for 15 hours watching all the people in transit or whether it’s walking ancient ruins that were build thousands of years ago by humans just like us.  It makes me realise that deep down, we are all struggling with the same human issues and enjoying the same human pleasures- some things transcend culture and geography.

So maybe I am running from something.  Maybe I am chasing something that I’ll never find.  Regardless, I’m enjoying the trip!

Decisions

I’m at a point in my life where I can sense that a cosmic shift is going to happen soon.  Obviously I’m not clairvoyant- I’m graduating, I’m travelling to Europe for a few weeks, I’m taking a full-time day job- anyone would sense that a lot of major changes are coming very soon.  Hopefully I’m simultaneously continuing my yoga teacher training and picking up cocktail gigs, but either way it’s going to be a massive change for me to be working in an office instead of running around performing and rehearsing and going to classes.  So I’ve been thinking about everything that I’m doing and wondering if any of it is relevant.  I know that all of the above is going to happen regardless of what I do now.  But is this because of the decisions that I’ve made and the things that I’ve done up to this point, or is it because or something else?

This led me to think about predetermination in the bigger picture.  Do any of our actions actually matter, or are our paths already chosen for us?  Was it determined by some power that my life would go the way it’s going before I even started making any decisions?  Are we truly victims of circumstance?

If philosophers have spent centuries pondering this and haven’t figured it out, I don’t suppose I have in my 21 years of experience.  Regardless, how you think your actions affect your life certainly affects the choices you make.  If I truly believed that nothing I did mattered, I wouldn’t do anything I found difficult because if I knew that the outcome would be the same, why would I bother?  Would you?

But are you actually making those choices or has something else determined that you would?  I’ve had to make lots of important decisions lately in all aspects of my life- work, school, relationships- and sometimes I can predict the direct results but sometimes I have no idea what will happen.  How do you make a decision when you don’t have any way of thinking of the results?  Do you even think of the consequences when you decide something, or do you just do what feels right at any given instant?

Clearly in order to function as sentient beings we need to at least have the illusion of choice.  Either that, or we need to give up the idea of consequential thinking and make decisions purely on instinct.  But if that’s the case, what makes us better than animals that do the same?

I am a fairly decisive person, so the notion of whether or not our choices are actually choices has plagued me for as long as I can remember.  I know what I want and I make sure that I get it.  Few things irritate me more than hearing “if it’s meant to happen, it will” or “you’re so lucky” because I like to think that I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve got.  But at the same time, is it a direct result of my effort or did something else make the decision long before I did?

Grief

They say there are seven stages of grief.  Do you buy it?

Shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, hope.

I don’t.  I think that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you are expecting to feel a certain way, there’s a pretty good chance that that emotion will manifest itself- but the fact is, everyone copes with loss differently.  There are ways that are healthy and there are ways that are less healthy, but not everyone goes through all of those emotions.

Buddhists believe that grief and suffering are inevitable parts of the physical world, and the only way to escape is by maintaining a certain level of distance from attachments.  By recognising that life and everything it entails is effervescent, it makes it that much easier to let go when an unexpected loss makes it necessary.  This uncertainty also makes it vital to savor every moment, because you truly don’t know which breath will be your last.  Your world as you know it can come to a screeching halt in the blink of an eye.

Two years ago tomorrow, I lost someone very close to me.  I haven’t cried about it.  Does that make me cold and callous, or mean that I didn’t love him?  Or does it mean that I’m at peace with the fact that like everything else in the world, people are impermanent?  Some people sobbed uncontrollably, some pretended nothing had happened, others didn’t speak at all.  All are perfectly valid coping mechanisms- for a little while.  I will admit that I didn’t eat for about two weeks and drank more than my fair share of the wine brought by sympathetic friends (which was probably not the healthiest thing), but I never really stopped moving at something close to my usual fast pace.

However, I still fully processed the major life change and cosmic shift that those around me underwent and I began adjusting to new habits.  I was not in denial, I never felt guilty about his death, and I never “bargained” (whatever that means).  Staying busy by planning a massive celebration and taking on other responsibilities to help fill the void helped me to realise quickly that my life would go on regardless of how I felt, so I might as well participate in it.  Having to go back to school for finals, concerts, and juries made that even more clear.  Life will not stop for you, and that is definitely not a bad thing.

Of course I miss my dad, especially at a time when my life is going in crazy directions that I couldn’t possibly have ever imagined.  But the thing is, grieving won’t solve anything.  The best solution is to live enough for both of us and to keep on going even though he’s not around to see what happens next.  I wish we could sit and watch The Daily Show and listen to Mozart’s Requiem on car rides to school.  I wish he were here so I could tell him about my travels, I wish he had been here to see my senior recital last month.  I wish he would come to my graduation in a few weeks and I wish he knew that despite everything, I am graduating summa cum laude after only three years with more credits than most graduate students.  I want him to know that we are all not only okay, but thriving.

Dad

The last words I spoke to him on the phone were “Thanks for the screwdriver.”  This sounds trivial, but anyone who knew my dad would find this incredibly fitting- he always helped everyone with anything they asked and things that they didn’t.  Fixing cars, plumbing, rides to the airport, pet-sitting, lending one of his hundreds of tools, just being a friend, you name it and he would be there- the 200+ people that showed up to his memorial service are a testament to how many lives he touched.

I have lots of great memories of my dad- watching the Life of Brian, visiting  England, dancing around the house to Sousa marches and ELO alike, his cooking triumphs (and disasters), his reckless driving, his funny faces and astonishing intelligence.

I remember the last time I saw him was outside of my freshman dorm, when he brought me back to school after spending Easter at home.  We were on the way back from the dining hall where we had gorged ourselves on cookies and ice cream and it was that fleeting time of day just before the sun begins to set, when the world is shadowy and getting a bit dozy but still has an aura of warmth.  We stood next to my bike to say goodbye and he grinned.  I indignantly asked why he was so happy to be leaving me, and he said, “It’s nice to see that you’re making a place for yourself in the world.”

Miss you, dad.  I hope your next life is just as thrilling and rich as this one was.

Asceticism and the Human Condition

I was watching The Buddha at the gym the other day, so naturally when I left I was thinking about Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment.   The phase in particular that was on my mind was his time spent as an ascetic, depriving himself of all worldly  pleasures and experiences in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

I think there’s something to be said for this- there definitely appears to be a disconnect between people as spiritual creatures and humans as animals.  This isn’t only the case for humans, though- I think it applies to other creatures too.  All of us are simply souls residing inside our physical bodies- I believe C.S. Lewis said something about that in a far more eloquent way, actually.  Obviously this isn’t a novel idea, but its a dichotomy that any sentient being has to grapple with.  The world can be a dangerous place for a soul seeking enlightenment.

At the same time, it seems naive and a bit irresponsible to just abstain from all things worldly entirely.  Of course, we are defined by our souls more than we are as humans, but is it not relevant that our souls are living in bodies on this place called Earth?  Should we really spend all of our time here trying to escape?  The world is full of suffering, but it’s also full of wonder.  We can learn a lot about our souls from experiencing both.

Of course like all paradoxes that we deal with, a balance must be struck.  I would think it’s helpful to experience one or the other or both walks of life in order to realise that neither is spiritually ideal.  We can’t live like Siddhartha in his early years, lavishly and wastefully.  But we also needn’t constantly deprive ourselves constantly in order to cultivate the higher being residing within all of us.

How do you balance the experience of life with spiritual health?

Appreciation

One of the most important mindsets to have is appreciation because it’s one of the easiest ways to stay positive.  Being appreciative can take many forms, from a simple “thank you” to someone who held the door open to an entire meditation devoted to a certain thought.

Appreciating other people not only makes them feel good, but you too.  Mother Teresa said that “in the simple act of giving, you receive” and it really couldn’t be more true.  The simple act of recognising when someone does something special for you not only makes the other person feel appreciated, but reinforces in yourself that someone did something nice.  How could this not set off a cycle of kind actions?

I try to take time as often as I can to express appreciation not only for people around me, but also for things.  It seems silly, but to me it is calming to honor everything’s purpose in life.  I like to appreciate a nice bed to sleep in or a hot cup of soup when it’s cold outside.  Perhaps a bed or a cup of soup can’t tell that I am saying “thank you,” but I find that I enjoy these things even more when I think about them with gratitude.

Appreciating serendipity and setbacks is something that I think is very underrated.  I don’t believe in luck as much as I do the power of positive thinking, but sometimes the smallest thing can cause a huge shift in your life.  I also don’t think that “everything happens for a reason,” but you usually can make the best of nearly any situation so that it turns out in your favor.  I had a bit of a negative experience with a particular professor once, and though initially I was angry and disillusioned, it caused me to really re-evaluate my plans at university which resulted in a decision to graduate a year early to take an incredible job opportunity.  It’s not true that “one door shuts, another one opens,” because that’s assuming that some higher power is just going to hand you an opportunity.  It’s more like “one door shuts, so you need to find yourself another way out of the room.”  Obviously initially, setbacks are unfortunate- but with the right mindset even they can turn into something worth appreciating.  Sometimes the universe has ways of nudging us in a direction that we may not have seen before.

Of course, the most important thing to appreciate is life in general.  Being able to wake up in the morning really is something amazing.  No matter what gets thrown at you on any given day, appreciate it and own it!

Namaste, and I appreciate you for reading my blog =)

Attachments

I saw this NPR article the other day about how attached people get to their sofas.  I thought it was an incredibly bizarre thing to write about because I’ve never felt a profound attachment to my sofa.  I was thinking about it, though, and I am a bit attached to some of my other possessions.  I really like my yoga mat and my teapot.  I’m probably most attached to my handbag though, because I’ve had it for years and it has been with to so many corners of the world.  Many people have suggested that I get a new bag- my aunt even begs me to let her buy one for me.  Instead, I sit and sew patches over patches every time a new hole appears because it feels like an old friend, not just an object.

I try very hard not to get attached to things, because all things are temporary (people are temporary too, but they tend to get their feelings hurt when you explain that you’re not attached to them).  Monks and priests of all sorts of different denominations understand the idea of remaining unattached to worldly things, and I think it’s a noble goal.  On the one hand, it’s not good to be wasteful as a result of being unattached, but on the other hand, it’s important to be able to let go and move on- both in terms of things that are too broken to fix and people you’ve outgrown.

At the same time, the world isn’t as much fun if you don’t get attached to things once in awhile.  It would be a boring place if you only had utilitarian objects that didn’t make you smile once in awhile- I like getting up in the morning to use my bright green tea kettle and I like to see my frog-shaped humidifier in the corner of my room.  I like having friends and getting to know people.  I understand that these are not essential on the path to ultimate enlightenment, but as long as they don’t get in the way I don’t think it’s a problem to enjoy things like this.  I don’t advocate frivolous consumerism by any means, but we’re going to be around in this world for awhile before we move on to the next one, so why not keep around a few things and people to make it more exciting?

You can get as attached to them as you want, as long as you recognise that nothing is permanent and you are prepared to one day let go.  As you continue your quest for happiness, your mindsets will change and you might find some of your friends drifting away and others moving closer- perhaps it’s time to let them go their way while you go yours.  Maybe that old hobo bag you really love just isn’t efficient anymore because of all the time it takes to mend the holes.

Enjoy attachment to possessions and people while they’re around, but do not depend on them for your happiness.  Be prepared to one day let everything go when you move on to an exciting new phase!