“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang onto, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa
I wasn’t prepared for the phone call.
I saw “Mom” on Caller ID and stepped outside the noisy restaurant to take the call. My mind races while I search for a quiet place to talk.
What horrible news required her to call this late? My father’s death? A freak airplane crash?
A late-stage cancer just discovered?
I imagine these scenarios, rehearsing how to respond in my mind. Instead, it’s nothing I could have rehearsed for or anticipated. My mother’s trembling voice can barely speak the words explaining how my nephew was killed by his mother, who then took her own life.
When death appears, we try to make sense of it through symbol and ritual: the body placed into the earth or surrendered onto the pyre to become ash, the photos we bring to the memorial service. Instead of being comforted by this, we may find there is no sense to be made of it at all.
We are propelled, raw, tender, and exposed straight into the gaping maw of reality. An embrace, two brothers holding each other, heart pressed into heart, erases 14 years of absence. I marvel at the immediacy of simply placing my hand upon another’s shoulder. The lives seemingly gone are swirling and surging—bodies transformed into ash and raw energy. This energy is palpably present as it seeks connection and release through the bodies of the mourners gathered.
Centuries ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that change is central to our universe: “Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” Life itself is change. Death, on the other hand, appears to be stasis and stillness. This illusion of steadiness and permanence is nothing more than a creation of our mind. Looking directly into the dark eye of death, we find it is pulsing with life force, mysteriously transforming what was alive into a different form, moving through invisible conduits which reveal our inseverable connection to life itself.
It is shocking when things that seemed to be solid, stable, and dependable vanish overnight. A marriage of 20 years washed away by an affair, a job that paid the mortgage and fed the family dissolved by a corporate takeover, a perfect child now considered mentally disabled after intelligence testing. Each change initially registers in the body as shock—breathing becomes difficult, the stomach constricts, the heart aches, tears begin to form in the eyes.
How could what seemed so solid and dependable, our core assumptions about reality, be swept away so casually by life? The way the body responds is itself an attempt to hold onto the seeming solidity of what we do not want to release. Our grasping and clinging to hope that the news is in error is the hopeless attempt to find ground, to reach a stable place and catch our breath. In reality, there is no ground.
To be ripped open by catastrophic news is to be brought fully into contact with what is real and meaningful. The nexus of the heart is where we are most alive and vulnerable; it is where physical sensation swells when we hear sad news. Here in the heart, truth is perceived without word or thought—it is felt viscerally. If you recoil and try to close your vulnerable heart center, you will suffer even more, for you cannot shut out what it knows and feels no matter how hard you try.
Opening and feeling everything that surges through the heart during times of crisis requires an authentic warrior spirit. Curiously, during these times of intensity, to open and feel fully while navigating shocks to the heart will feel like you are dying. With nothing to hang onto, falling through the unknowing of vulnerability and rawness, nakedly press your soft belly into the reality of the situation, just as it is right now. When I have been able to do this, a spontaneous arising of grief, gratitude, and awe moves through me.
When an emotion seems too intense to bear, the heart ragged and torn, I return my awareness to breath. I inhale and feel the pain of my family, I exhale extending my heartfelt desire that their pain be eased. Inhale and receive all the love that supports my brief life on this blue-green planet. Exhale and release it all sending forth gratitude for all I have received, to all those I have had the honor to love and to hold in my arms. Then pause—and wait. Wait for the next inhale to begin all of its own accord. All our resistance and fighting cannot prevent this life force. Marvel at how the breath begins again, all on its own. Hold in awe the heart that beats and feels although unbidden.
Even though there is no ground, there is a tenderness, a fundamental warmth in simply being alive.
Author: Christopher Sunyata
Editor: Travis May