HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated April 08, 2012 12:00 AM Comments
There are certain words that can strike fear into a person’s heart, words such as failure, loss, rejection, inadequacy, inability, to name a few. We may lose a job, a whole career, a loved one, a position, prestige, money, etc. Or we may fail at tasks that matter, or even at our life’s mission.
Experiences of rejection could happen in school, at work, in our social circles, the family. We could even judge and reject ourselves as not being good enough.
There are also experiences when we will feel we have bitten off more than we can chew and this makes us feel somewhat inadequate and humbled.
We will surely experience such situations in our lives, sometimes even repeatedly. And yes, the pain in such experiences cuts deep and can be so demoralizing that we could remain stuck and unable to recover our bearing or zest to move on.
We could fall in a spiral of depression and self-loathing. Some people suffer nervous breakdowns. In certain tragic instances, it could even be fatal. We have heard of people who have committed suicide after suffering a great personal setback.
Pain and suffering are part of the topography of life’s journey. It starts in paradise where all is rosy and cozy. But sooner or later, we get kicked out of it and lose our innocence, and that’s when real life begins. We wander through the alternating harshness and comforts of life’s seasons, its valleys and peaks, its deserts and lushness, its graces and curses. And the only relief from this roller coaster ride is to decide to live with whatever shows up until we can finally embrace it. Perhaps one of the greatest realizations ever uttered by man is the all-too-common expression, “That’s life.” It sums up the baffling unevenness, the cruelties and ironies of life, its joys and sadness, the triumphs and tribulations we are bound to encounter.
Our experience of life, as philosophers describe it, is dualistic. There is good and there is bad. We necessarily live on both sides of these opposite dichotomies. If we have never seen night, we would not be aware what day is like. If we do not know wet, how can we begin to describe what dry is, or even think of it as a unique state? We only know things because we have experienced their opposites. And often we adjust to this with great difficulty.
I have read about and observed how some religious practices handle this conundrum of duality. (I am writing this a few days before Easter, by the way.) In the Christian world, this is a time of the year when believers ponder the suffering and death of Jesus and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
An intriguing observation about Easter is this: we desire and strive so hard to be powerful and, yes, God-like, while God had this great desire to be human like us. God was willing to trade his immortality to experience mortality — through his son. One of the many ironic and paradoxical messages here is, one must be willing to die so that one may really live, even through others. Here, the idea of handling duality is choosing one over the other. One must choose life over death, good over evil.
Visiting Kathmandu many years ago, I witnessed, with great fascination, a Hindu death ceremony. On a platform inside the Hindu temple, a corpse was set on a funeral pyre. While this was going on, by the Bhagmati River which runs through the temple, I saw a dead man being washed in preparation for the next cremation. And in the same river, I watched children swimming, a woman washing clothes, a man urinating, and peasants diving in the water for pieces of clothing that the relatives of the dead man on the cremation platform had been throwing prior to disposing of his ashes, also in the Bhagmati River, which merges with the great Ganges in India, the final resting place of Hindus.
I was amazed at the richness and diversity of the activities that were happening all in the same setting. My take on this is that in the Hindu faith, life and death are interconnected. There is no separating one from the other. In everything that was happening all was the “suchness” of being alive. In the Hindu religion, the sacred and profane, sadness and happiness, loss and gain, death and life are all valid forces playing out within one arena.
In Zen practice, there are koans given by the teacher to the students to deepen their understanding of Zen and life itself. Koans are deeply intriguing questions or stories that can immediately baffle a student and force him to get out of a rational, logical mode of thinking and approach the koan with full intuition and a beginner’s mind. One famous koan goes, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Anyone who hears this is immediately stumped and will, almost always, try to swing one hand to attempt what is literally being asked.
But that response can only bring the student further from the truth it is pointing at. My understanding of this koan is that it is a question aimed at duality itself. It asks what life and everything would be like without an opposite.
Sooner than later, the question will make one think, shake his head and ask why everyone seems to be stuck in the preposterous ideal of aiming for a perfect life. A clap is, after all, produced by two opposing forces coming head on. So all our frantic attempts at trying to escape duality by shunning, rejecting and eliminating all sadness, loss, rejection and other unpleasant stuff, and keeping only the so-called good experiences, will seem like madness. Surely, it is impossible to run away from these. But still we keep trying.
The only escape from such madness is to accept everything as part of the lock, stock and barrel of life and so it stops being dualistic. No more conditions. Everything and everyone are welcome and seen as bearing gifts (although we may balk at some gifts). Life comes in an entire set, with nothing excluded. All is one.
I have a rather nuanced appreciation of Easter that I wish to share. Easter is replete with themes of triumph, redemption, and yes, celebration. But Easter was only possible because there was suffering and death and resurrection that went with it. Life, whether it be Jesus’ or anyone else’s, would be meaningless without suffering.
And it takes “faith” for both the secular and religious to believe that life can and does get better, and that people have the spiritual capacity to rise over loss, rejection and failure.
That to me is the great truth about Easter that everyone from any religious persuasion can appreciate.
Happy Easter to every sentient being on earth.