The Great Journey: Coping with Loss

Personal essay

There comes a time when innocence is shattered by loss and sorrow reigns over the land of the heart. It is said that what makes our species so special is our awareness of our own mortality, and of those whom we love. It is what makes us beautiful, it is why we find beauty in the world. It is how we create our own beauty. And it is why the gods are envious of us.

There is a lake near the house I grew up in. It is in the middle of the city. On all the hot summer days, my friends and I would walk down to the lake, cross the busy city traffic and through the park, shedding our sweaty street clothes and jumping into its cold embrace. It is a small lake, and algae would bloom during those solstice days, making it fit for its name: Greenlake. That lake raised us. Me and sisters. And my Brother.

But now it has taken one of our lives.

The individual experience of such a loss does not bring forth immediate clarity and understanding. Thoughts become confusing and unreliable. Fuzzy. Dizzying. I now exist not only in the world of the living. I sense the cold kiss of death closer than ever before. Its seduction looms just beyond my sight, and I turn eagerly to catch a glance, but always missing it.

If there is such an existence beyond what we call life, then my beloved brother is now embedded within it, trying to find his way back to our ancestors. Through my creation and past images of him, I have attempted to immerse my imagination into this realm beyond existence where I can only merely believe he now treads upon.

I will not cease to illuminate your existence until I too have embarked on to The Great Journey.

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;—

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world forever, it seems.

ARTHUR O’SHAUGHNESSY

 

 

One. Haunted

Haunted - A Ghost Among Us

In 2014, at the age of 16, my younger brother came to visit me in Hawai’i. He was in high school. Young, but growing up quickly, he was confronting his own individuality and the boundaries of his own morality. His spring break visit came at a time when my mother and step-father were worried about his developing deviant behavior and lack of care for school. We traveled the island together in my beat-up ’96 Subaru Outback for 5 days, before I had to get back to work, and he to school.

While rummaging through my digital archives, I stumbled across the few but memorable photos I had taken from that trip. When I came across the photo of my brother standing alone amidst the steam vents of the Kilauea Caldera, shivers shot through my spine. The solitary stance of my brother squinting into the lens of the camera made me break down and cry almost instantly. It wasn’t so much because of this particular photo alone, but because I knew there existed a photo of me and my three older sisters standing in the very same spot only two years later. The two images in my mind so starkly represented this distance and space now between him and my siblings. It was haunting. I needed to rectify it, if not because of this guilt and shame I felt deep down inside that my brother was always on the fringe of our sibling dynamics – both in age and in personality – then because of surrendering to the grief that must accompany those who remain alive to mourn the dead.

 

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I  merged the two photos together. The feelings began to pour through me; Guilt, anger, sadness, grief. At first, I attempted to make the images one layer, so to speak, to join Taiga’s image alongside his siblings, as if he was there with us the whole time. I was following that guilty feeling that made me want to rectify the separation of us and him. But when I combined them like so, the image did not feel authentic. It did not feel true. Instead, it felt like a cover-up. A way to deny the truth that he is no longer right there with us, just like he was not there with us on that trip to Hawai’i. He came on his own.

I decided I needed to confront the darker realization. That he was now a ghost – logged memories in our minds, past murmurs reverberating in our hearts. He was not beside us – next to us – but instead a subtle force behind us. Someone we could sense, and maybe if we turned around quickly enough, might catch a glimmer as his image fades into the haze.

If we do not mourn the dead, then they will come back to haunt us. This is the first step in the Great Journey of the Spirit. It is our responsibility as the living to reconcile with who we have lost – the wind in which the sails of the spirit’s vessel first catches on the journey across the cosmos.

Two. The Wanderer

taiga_fading_final.jpg

Lost and Aimless

Finishing the first image left me with a greater hunger to create; to pour all my focus and attention into my brother. I had laid down the groundwork, which became the germination for this forested desire, and was now ready to see which direction this would go. I could not quite yet see where it would take me, but knew it was taking me somewhere.

I don’t have a lot of photos of my brother, mainly only from his trip in 2014. I decided I would just stick with these photos. Maybe that was what this project was – a way for me to connect with my brother personally. Maybe that’s what these images represent: a trip he took solely to spend time with me. So it began as most things do, as an inner and selfish desire. This was about me just as much as it was about Taiga. Maybe only about me.

The next image I came across was a landscape shot of Mauna Kea from a Pu’u that stands between the Giant Volcano and its neighbor: Mauna Loa. I took the photo as Taiga was walking just below in the distance but in the foreground of the massive mountain that towers above all life on this island. I liked this image if only for the sake of the perspectives and composition: A faraway volcano draped in silhouette and clouds. A tiny thin-lined road with a pilgrimage of mini cars ascending to its peak. My brother walking stiffly in the cold in tandem with the road. It made for this connection between objects that otherwise seemed so far away from one another.

But when I looked at this image again, I felt a loneliness protruding from my brother. I imagined him now wandering across the vast landscapes of this earth, surrounded by life but no longer a part of it, only moving through it, past it, fading out of existence and into nothingness. The closer he tried to move towards something he knew, he once was a part of, he would come to find that his own tangibility would dissolve.

With this image comes the next phase of the great journey: wandering along the planes of  Earth. The recently dead or released spirits have accepted their severance from the living, but have not yet accepted their severance from home; Earth. And so they wander, denying the call to a greater cosmic universe that awaits them. Perhaps this is what my brother is doing now, visiting the places he never got to, holding on as tight as he can to the only world he knows, yet slowly losing his grasp – slipping away.

Three. Severance

Taiga_Gazing_Down_Final

Pain and Turbulence.

One of the last things I remember my brother telling me was how much he hated school but loved to learn. I think perhaps those words more than any other have given me the courage and purpose to become a teacher. A month after he died, I found myself back in Hawai’i as an English high school teacher.

The other day one of my student’s shared a metaphor for how her mind works.

“It’s the tides,” she said, ” ebbing and flowing.”

I contemplated her answer and realized then what drew me to create this next image of my brother. The intertidal zone is a harsh place to call home. It is turbulent as it must constantly face dealings with change; desiccation, salinity, wave turbulence. It is the shore, the threshold, the gateway between two worlds.

I imagine my brother making it to the shore after wandering aimlessly as a lost spirit on Earth. I imagine him splitting from the memories he has attached all of his existence to, and severed from. I imagine his own notion of himself shrinking and dissolving into the rocky shore, becoming detritus for the invertebrates to consume, breakdown, and assimilate back into the earth.

I imagine the pain of all this. The grief he must feel to no longer have a life. We, the living, mourn what we have lost, but what of the Dead? For they have lost their life. How do the dead mourn?

The sun, bringer and destroyer of life, rises between the dividing and splitting of his existence, severing my brother once and for all from any more ties to this earthly plane. It is time to never look back.

 

Four. Embarkation.

Taiga_Galaxy_Explorer_Final

Discovery and Opportunity

When we confront the aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us, and only after shedding the dry skin, are we ready to face the chapters in life that beckon us forth. Perhaps the end of life is only the shedding of our physical burden to be released into a greater chapter of existence.

The excitement that builds as we sense our preparedness is ready to bloom into action is a feeling that excites and awakens every molecule in our being.  For the dead, what exists that can feel, if anything?

I await the moment I sense my brother has discovered his liberation into the vast unknown, the uncharted territories that we mere mortals have only seen through the eyes of our instruments. This is a photo of my brother peering down into the crater of Mauna Ulu, which can be translated to mean Mountain of Growth.  It was a crater that was active in the 80’s, but now rests in its dormancy.  The position of my brother leaning ever so slightly down towards the depth of creation, while still holding on to the earthen rock, made me think of that moment we discover just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

This moment of release is the moment I pray my brother has found or will find. For he is most certainly meant to be amongst the stars.

Five. The Traveler

The cosmic wind in his hair, hitchhiking across the Lagoon Nebula, my brother is at last now on his way towards the infinite.

From yet another photo of my brother’s visit to Hawai’i, I captured him during a moment that I like to think forever impacted him. It brings me great joy to think of the two of us riding in the back of my friend’s truck, out towards the beach, and to also picture him now rocketing through the heavens, exhilarated by this newly found freedom. With such a perspective one can only celebrate his early departure from this Earth.

The background image of the Lagoon Nebula was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on my birthday this year to celebrate the 28th anniversary of its launch. Yes, I and the HST are indeed the same age, and it seemed only fitting to use its glorious images to depict my brother free at last.

Six. The Master Navigator

Taiga_Paddle_Final

The Return to the Beyond

 

After traveling across the stars, galaxies, and universe, my brother has become a cosmic cartographer.

His death was twisted. He died doing what gave him peace in what otherwise seemed like a tumultuous time in his life. He loved to kayak on that lake. It’s what got him up in the morning. He even worked at the lake, renting boats out to the park goers. It seemed only right to use a photo of him paddling on the very lake that took his life to show him mastering the heavens.

I will only miss you here on this earth for a brief moment, for life is short. And in this brief moment that remains of my own life, I have eternity to look forward to spending with you. You will have much to teach me when that time comes.

So long, little brother.

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Life is a Game: The Practice of Non-attachment.

Philosophy and Opinion

There are many attitudes on life we can adapt that will ultimately dictate how we go about living our individual lives. These attitudes are essentially what we choose to focus on in the perception of our experiences. This is where philosophy plays a critical role in the task of bringing peace and balance into a society; that which provides order to a people.

The attitude of life is a game is a philosophical metaphor  we have all heard. It has many ways of being interpreted. One of the most common interpretations of this attitude is don’t take life so seriously. Another well-known interpretation is  you’re dealt a hand in life, how are you going to play it? 

Many of these thoughts on life are an attempt to reduce the suffering one experiences through their own interpretation on life. Essentially, life is a game is yet another way of explaining the practice of the non-attachment relationship with life.

So then why is life just but a game? And what does it have to do with non-attachment?

You’re just joining your friends for an evening of board games. It’s a game you all enjoy, and have played often together. You know it well, and have learned your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a bit of strategic game, but like all games chance is involved. You all sit down to play the game. There are some ups and downs throughout the game for you and everyone else. Some players seem to be doing better than others. You get bummed when all your resources are taken, you celebrate when you gain another point. You feel a pang of disappointment when you don’t win, but it soon fades as the game ends and you all transition your evening into the next thing. Those who did well feel a bit more elated than when they began, and those who played poorly feel a certain sadness, but by the end everyone has completely moved on, focused on whatever is happening in the following moments life has to offer.

It’s a cold morning, the coldest of the year, but you’re excited. This Sunday your home football team is playing their rivals in your hometown. And you have tickets. You’re whole day is dedicated to the game. You get to the stadium hours early, all bundled up in your team’s colors. There are thousands of other slowly trickling in, all feeling charged up. The game does not disappoint. It is an especially good game because the teams go back and forth in taking the lead. You’re team doesn’t win, but they played their hearts out, and you love them for that. The day is ending, and its time to get home to your family for a nice warm dinner. The day’s excitement is still buzzing in your head as you drift to sleep, and perhaps it carries into the next day at work. But over time it fades. Just another game.

To practice non-attachment is not to rid your life of desires, hopes, and dreams. It is in no way to live out a life of isolation from reality. Nor is it freedom from pain or some nirvana state. But it is to recognize that everything will eventually find its end, and much of the suffering we endure in life is the inability to move on from our attachment to something that once was but no longer exists.

There was a time when humans lived closer to nature, and our constant understanding of reality was based solely upon the principles of the nature around us. It was a continual change of conditions, a highly temporal world as people’s very survival was contingent on their understandings of these changes and learning how to adapt. Quite naturally, the practice of non-attachment was an essential part of life. If you stayed attached, got too used to one way of living, you would surely die.

Today within the context of what we know as modern society, human populations live far more separated from nature and thus more embedded in a human cultural environment. These modern cultural environments exist in a state that is of great contrast to that of the natural world. Structurally, they are rigid and engineered with a permanence design. This kind of societal infrastructure consequently bleeds into the minds of those who dwell in such environments, i.e. probably anyone reading this blog today, and ultimately as it stains our perception of reality, we then internalize this and project it outwards, as it shapes our very identity, our behavior, and our actions.

It is ironic how through the modernizing of humanity the vast majority of us have come to believe we are closer than ever to living out practical and realistic lives, which in some cases is true, but this truth is almost entirely contained within a human construct. As in, we primarily receive information about the world through a secondary source – from other humans. We entrust the vast majority of our how we “see” the world to other human beings. This practice is just fine, so long as we are aware of this, that most of the information we know about our worl could very well be untrue.

This is the principle of non-attachment. It begins with not attaching to the information you are being fed day in and day out when you wake up, conscious, absorbing and accessing the world surrounding you. It begins with not attaching to your thoughts and ideas, these highly malleable and brief moments that wisps through your mind. It’s the freedom of being skeptical; something that the philosophy of science has made it’s foundation upon. The ending principle of the non-attachment way of life is to release yourself from the attachment to your own life, and sometimes even more importantly, to the lives of others.

This is no easy task. We have been programmed, as I said earlier, to attach ourselves to the physical and non-physical; to the material and the emotional realms of existence. It is intrinsic in the design of our society: that which governs our behavior. But to break free of the chain of attachment living is to free yourself from the draining burden of being stuck in a single state of being: the underlining product of attachment.

On either ends of this spectrum it can look like two contrasting extremes. On one end it is the perpetuating craving of a kind of manic state of being, in which you are constantly seeking stimulants to feed your addiction to achieve an elated state. The other end is that of depression, isolation, grief, and ultimately pain. Much, if not all sickness and disease come from the energetic being getting lodged into one extreme or the other, or, in another extreme, rapidly oscillate between a depressive state and manic: what we have come to know as Manic-depression or in some special cases, Bipolar.

When we begin to see life as a game, it is not to see life as any less real, it is in fact to see life for what it is. It is to take something that we have ironically labeled as “unreal”, a game, and project it onto our reality. When you can agree within yourself, changing the programming of your inner representation of reality, that life is just a game, then you will begin to sense within yourself a lightness. That feeling is the flowing movement of energy that you allow to move freely, for you have begun to remove the blockades, the “attachments” to one belief or another.

But the difficult task here is not creating that change of existence for yourself. That actually comes quite naturally when put into effect. It is the “believing” part that is the daunting task. You have to believe for yourself that content and freedom are states of being that do exist. So how do you unlearn what you have learned? How do you tell yourself to stop believing the ways of attachment, and start believing in the ways of non-attachment? Because I can tell you that right off the bat, you won’t want to believe what I’m saying.

And that’s a good thing, for you should be skeptical of anything and everything that you are told, that is a practice of non-attachment! But you also need to learn how to listen, so you can discern, and make truly free choices based on your ability to listen and discern the information you are receiving from the seemingly endless sources and resources available to you in this modern human world.

But let’s get back to this idea of life as a game, because I believe it is within this metaphor you may find some assurance, something that deep down inside you relate to, that you agreed with way before human society began to take its toll on the domestication of your being.

To return to truth, we must return to the beginnings of life.

Childhood. Play. Games have always existed inherently within us. We learn about ourselves, our world, and our place in it, through exploration and play. We observe the world around us, and our parents or guardians provide a safe-feeling space for us to play out what we observed, as well as provide a safe environment for us to reach outside of our comfort-zone and grow int0 our full potential – just like a well nurtured plant.

It is all too easy to forget the blissful state of a child raised in a safe, loving, environment. But it is not to say that these children are without emotional ups and downs. A child goes through an entanglement of emotions from screaming and kicking and what looks like absolute terror, to laughter and euphoria, all in a single day, sometimes even in a single moment. These children are not sick with manic-depressive behavior, they are merely not attaching to one form of being or the other, they are dancing through life as their operative selves were natural designed to do. Parent’s of these children often perceive this behavior as a kind of wildness, laughing off jokes about their child being a menace or little beast. And these parents I would argue aren’t too far from the truth, when calling their children such names. They are wild, they are beasts. But the understanding and interpretation behind these labels can go one of two ways – if told directly to the children with a negative connotation, as a form of putting down, it will steer the children away from such behavior, domesticating the child into a series of behavioral patterns which leads to attachment, for a children learns from the parents that their wildness, their playfulness, is not the correct way to act, and thus separates play from life. 

This is a from of growing up all too common in our educational system during middle childhood: the developmental ages of around 6 to 11 year olds. It’s not to say that a structured environment where a child learns discipline is not of value, on the contrary, it is about under-valuing the role of play in the early developmental stages of our younglings.

When we grow older and learn that there is a time to play, and a time not to play, we believe we are learning when certain behavior is acceptable, and when it is not, which is true, we are learning this. But how we are applying it to the greater aspects of life is  where I believe there are dire consequences that lead to a kind of collective dependency on attachment relationships, fear of loss/death, and thus an internal suffering.

When a loved one dies, there will be grief involved. When your partner breaks up with you, you will feel grief, and possibly anger. When you lose your job, or you’ve been unemployed for months and you begin to view yourself as unworthy, you are participating in the very self-destructive practice of attachment.

For all of us, we must go through life feeling the hardships and the loss, as well as the ease and joy and gains. These events in life are a natural process for the living. Death and birth, abundance and scarcity exist continuously throughout. When we accept this as natural, unavoidable, we can then open ourselves to the full process of living, and find bliss within every state of being, for bliss is the experience of life coursing through us.

As Master Qui-Gon Jim once said, “Remember, concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts. Your focus determines your reality.”