I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life”Orson Welles
On 6th October 2019, I lost my mother, aged 51. Completely unexpected, sudden death. I want to reflect on grief. I’m not going to talk about her life, because ultimately words can’t convey the whole of reality. They are simply concepts, ‘placeholders’, maps, that point to reality, not the actual thing itself. No word can truly explain a persons life, full of joy, compassion, suffering and the range of experiences possible within conscious experience.
I’m not going to say how to grieve. This is not a prescription. Everyone has their own way of understanding this process. This is simply a reflection, on how I understand the process at a fundamental level at this age. Maybe it won’t make sense, maybe it will.
But when I know that the glass is already broken, every minute with it is preciousAjahn Chah
This is a fundamental truth that we go throughout life ignoring. That everything fades. The sun will fade, the planet will fade, galaxies will fade, people will fade, experiences fade, memories and thoughts fade, emotions fade, each breath ends. There is only a river of experience. Change is the only constant and “This too shall pass”. Understanding this conceptually and seeing it an experiential level, are different.
Conceptually, when I was in my late teens, I started reading the stoic philosophers : Seneca, Marcus Aurelius. One letter by Seneca talks about imagining that one has lost something or someone in daily life. Therefore when one loses, it is expected. And in daily life, one appreciates what you have. Because its on loan. You don’t own anything. Everything is on loan. And this to me is a beautiful truth. Isn’t the difference between a plastic flower and a real flower, the fact that the real flower ends?
Similarly, impermanence is an essential truth pointed to in Buddhist philosophy. The problem arises when we cling to inherently impermanent states. We delude ourselves with the illusion of stability. We think that there is security. The truth is there is only a flux of experience. One can see this experientially, the fading of each moment at a deep visceral level. As Alan Watts, eastern philosopher said : “the only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance“.
We build castles in the sand, without realising that the tide will come in. We cling to it, make it part of our identity. “This is mine”, and this causes tremendous suffering. The other option is to ‘do and let go’. This is what Eastern philosophers mean by ‘non attachment’, another misunderstood concept. Non attachment is realising that it will change, and one must appreciate it in the present without clinging to the idea or thought of it.
But we forget this, thinking we are building towards something stable when in reality it is just scaffolding. We look towards some satisfaction in the future. Once I get ‘X’, I will be happy. This is the fundamental human delusion. One is simply reacting to a thought of the future, and missing out on an incredible experience found in the present moment.
On death and the present moment
Have you ever thought of making a cup of tea. Suppose you are washing the dishes, not particularly enjoying it. Instead thinking, “ah, once I get some tea, then I can finally relax”. Then you make your tea, and then whilst drinking the tea, you are simply lost in thought thinking about the next thing “need to do X work”. It’s always the next thing. Maybe one doesn’t realise this, but if one looks at the mind, seriously with curiosity and without judgement, you’ll see that it constantly projects into the future or the past. Once I get “X” I can finally relax. One has sacrificed an ‘idea’ of the future, for the real thing.
There is a constant trail of discursive thought that we just don’t notice. When one looks at a sunset for example, there is a narrator that is judging, comparing to the past or the future. Every moment of my life, until about age 20. I was lost in discursive thought. I’m still lost in discursive thought, but now punctuated with moments of real awareness. This is a world of difference. It is possible to see without judgement, or expectation, and just experience it without clinging to any concepts or completely without being beholden to an inner monolgue,. This is real internal peace.
Evolution and natural selection have not selected for contentment. We are driven by the forces of desire and aversion. But is there another way?
It’s as if everyone is on a beach, running towards the tide when it goes in, and running away from the tide when it comes out. Constantly running back and forth, driven by desire and aversion. But as some traditions have extolled : it is possible to simply lie down and enjoy the waves as they go in and out.
This is again misunderstood as ‘not thinking about the future, and being a hippy and just sacrificing the future and making terrible decisions in the present’. No. It is to be aware that one is thinking about the future without being lost in it. Thought is an incredible tool but it without being reigned in, it can cause harm. It is a useful servant but a horrible master.
Is it possible to relax without any external conditions? This is a serious topic requiring tremendous attention. Is it possible to be content without being driven by the tyrants of desire and aversion? This is something that words cannot tell you. It’s experiential and one must go into it themselves. No guru or religion or dogma can tell you. They are all just concepts pointing to experiential truth.
Acceptance of reality
Death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful – and hence neither good nor badMarcus Aurelius
Grief is painful because there is a disconnect between what we want (desire), and reality as it is. We want reality to conform to our desire, and this causes pain.
Ultimately, grief is selfish. We grieve for ourselves, because “I have lost”. It’s the difference between love and attachment. Attachment is where you cling to an idea of the thing. Where there is love, there is appreciation of reality, there is no self referential thought. I noticed with grief : I “want” came up a lot. I want this to be different. This is where the problem starts. It’s a thought, not the reality.
I noticed when watching the mind, that is was painful when thought would project into the future. “What could have been”. But that’s just a fiction, a story. It’s an internal model, that one then clings to, and causes misery.
Similarly with regret. Regret is just a thought projecting back into the past. Particularly painful was “maybe I could have prevented it. Maybe if I’d just done X or whatever, I would have stopped it“. This is a story one can get lost in. But its just a fiction. Not the reality. And being lost in this without realising it is a thought, can cause real suffering.
The place then to come to is radical acceptance. This is not a directive, that you must do this. It’s an observation. I can’t tell anyone how to grieve. But it seems the rational response is deep acceptance of reality, not a ‘thought about reality’.
Reality has no notion of good or bad. It simply is. There is nothing good or bad to a tree. It is only in our mind that such notions arise. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, there is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so.
Gratitude and Compassion
There is only this conscious experience and it exists on a scale or ‘human misery/suffering’ and ‘human joy/flourishing’. The rational response is to move towards human flourishing/ eudomonia as the Greek philosophers called it.
Really understanding that time is limited, you naturally develop compassion. How can one be cruel or say cruel things, when you realise that we are all on the same boat heading towards void? Death is the great leveller. Obviously you can forget in the moment, but once you remember, the only sane response is kindness.
There is this concept of dependent origination in Buddhism. Which ultimately boils down to ’cause and effect’. It’s something I accept as an axiomatic truth. There are causes, and they lead to effects.
This is profound, because ultimately its just a chain of cause and effect from the Big Bang till now; a series of particle collisions from the Big Bang till present. Each cause leads to an effect, and each effect is itself a cause, etc. It’s a complex web of interaction, all interdependent and connected. As Carl Sagan said ‘To first bake an apple pie, you have to make a universe’.
Realising this truth, should inspire awe. We are literally made from stardust and our every intention, thought, action contributes to this vast complex web of information exchange. As the old adage goes : intention leads to thought leads to action leads to habit leads to character leads to fate. When we pass, we leave behind a chain of effects(which are also causes, and they lead to more effects etc). It’s the old flap of a Butterfly’s wings causing changes elsewhere.
We are part of this cosmic web of interaction interconnected via millions of invisible threads. Death is a part of this chain and when one passes, they leave behind all the chains of cause and effect they have contributed to. There is some legacy, they live on through the people they impact. This is not to espouse an afterlife, as from an evidence based point, its a non verifiable claim and therefore moot. But it brings some level of awe to realise that existence is mysterious and there is a level of interconnectedness in the universe.
The more you know yourself, the more clarity there is. Self-knowledge has no end – you don’t come to an achievement, you don’t come to a conclusion. It is an endless river.J. Krishnamurti
It’s easy to ignore and distract oneself. But with grief, as with any experience. You have to observe it. Don’t have any preconceived notions of how it should be, but observe without judgement. Not even to get rid of it. But just with curiosity.
Maybe this made sense. I write this for myself, to see how one has processed it at this moment in time. But again this is all individual, all conceptual. It’s different to understand theory and to really understand it at a fundamental level.You have to continue to observe the mind without judgment.
I think grief comes in three parts. Loss, losing and loosening as Frank Ostaseski says in his book.
The initial loss is agony. It’s hard to keep up with all the thoughts the mind generates. You push against reality. “I want this to be different”. Desire is suffering.
Maybe after some time, you can come to a place of partial acceptance. But still, in those moments, you lose them. When I want to talk about my day or when I come back home expecting someone to love me unconditionally, make food, someone I can make jokes with, I lose again. It is the small things that one realises they have lost.
Then eventually, there is loosening. You take it less personally, less seriously. Life becomes lighter. You still carry the burden, but it is simpler. At least for me, it is understanding the ‘truths’ I’ve verified for myself above.
We will all lose. There is no security. And that is beautiful. It makes you realise that every moment is precious, and it is possible to find joy, purpose and tranquility. It is all on loan.
Now go spend time with people you love.
Message my mum sent me and my sister on her 50th birthday: