I am listening to Andrea Fella on death and impermanence.
“It’s not a depressing thing, actually.”
Most of my lessons the past year have involved living with uncertainty. How can a person root when reality requires constant adaptation?
Fella describes the lesson of physics that tells us everything is always changing, everything is made of atoms – and they aren’t even atoms – they are particles in constant flux. “It’s hard to be in touch with this kind of change,” she says. Generally, Fella continues, people tend to stay at the surface – dealing with change only when it rocks assumed solidities – the World Trade Center is attacked, earthquakes and hurricanes happen . . . however, if we notice the subtleties occurring all around us: “Things are ending all the time.”
Quoting* The 8th Duino Elegy from Rainer Maria Rilke (who inspired me, most deeply, many years ago), Fella wants to spin grief on its head:
Who formed us thus:
that always, despite
our aspirations, we wave
as though departing?
Like one lingering to look,
from a high final hill,
out over the valley he
intends to leave forever,
we spend our lives saying
Too often (dwelling in insecurity), my sentiment has been one of “always saying goodbye” – which is ironically so much the opposite of the attitude I prefer: “I don’t care if I am possible . . . We must learn to trust thin air” (Ursula LeGuin, “Newton Did Not Sleep Here“).
One of Fella’s antidotes is to adopt the stance of Don Juan (at 18:22):
… The thing to do when you’re impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you. Death is … a wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. (You) have to ask death’s advice and drop the cursed pettiness that belongs to men that live their lives as if death will never tap them.
“A Strange Consuming Happiness”
Fella says joy comes from contemplating death, from living as if each act in the world — no matter what it is — might be one’s last. This attitude increases care and ethical action. I suppose one might call it mindfulness, or perhaps grace.
Working with “Broken Bits of Information”
Broken bits of perception are “the base level of our experience,” Fella explains, describing how our mind uses vision to perceive and make sense of light. Referring to a particular experiment she adds, “if you’re moving your eyes at the right speed.” Always, then (I extrapolate), there is coordination (or lack thereof), whether it is the eye-mind or some other sensory perception with consciousness, or two people having a conversation. Coordination is the essence of communication. “When we cling to what we construct in our minds through this perceptual process,” Fella warns, “we suffer.” Off I go again – “understanding,” “meaning,” the abstract subtle and relational ‘things’ we believe we have communicated or comprehended – these too pass into impermanence.
[The animal] is not exempt from an unclear
memory-which subdues us as well:
the notion that what we seek was once
closer and truer by far than now…
and infinitely tender.
No clinging to reflections in the mirror; all things change – are always, forever, changing. Fella completes her talk with a quote from “A Walk in the Woods” by Phra Khantipalo:
Everything and everybody — that includes you and me — deteriorates, ages, decays, breaks up, and passes away. And we, living in the forest of desires, are entirely composed of the impermanent. Yet our desire impels us not to see this, though impermanence stares us in the face from every single thing around. And it confronts us when we look within — mind and body, arising and passing away.
So don’t turn on the TV, go to the pictures, read a book, seize some food, or a hundred other distractions just to avoid seeing this. This is the one thing really worth seeing, for one who fully sees it in himself is Free.
* Andrea Fella reads the last two stanzas of Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy (at 13:24) from a different translation than the one I found online. The comparisons are interesting – I prefer certain phrases from each version. My curiosity about synchrony is piqued by the fact that the poem, overall, compares the animal and human gaze upon death and things (“objects”). Mei Mei remains among the living as I type, an acupuncture treatment granting yet another temporary reprieve.