Saturday, December 20, 2008

The way it is

I cannot give up the flower of this world
which sooner or later scatters—
though I go to Enlightenment,
I cast backward glances.

Haya Akegarasu

As Buddhists we often speak of detachment, generally understanding that to mean breaking free of our attachments, “transcending” our attachments and the accompanying suffering. People we love die; we suffer loss and grief. The liberated personality, we suppose, somehow glides past this more easily than we. Fair enough, if life were a movie. But it is not. And life recently clarified this for me, pulling me close, deepening my appreciation.

Today, November 30th, is the fourteenth anniversary of my brother in law’s death. We learned of this just last week. Yes, last week, fourteen years after his passing, we learned he was gone.

While still a young man, Eddie was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. On medication, he was fine; off meds, he was delusional and unable to function normally. When things were good, he loved to work and to be with people. When things were really bad, it was not unusual for him to wander off. He once wandered as far as Phoenix, where he was picked up and committed; we last heard from him upon his release in the summer of 1994—he was happy to be headed home. We know now he made it as far as Los Angeles, where, apparently homeless, he was killed.

At that time, the police had only his fingerprints to go on and were unable to make a match. Eddie became John Doe #216 and so family efforts to locate him over the years, including hiring a private investigator, were all for naught. Early in November, expanded Homeland Security database information allowed LAPD to make positive identification and the family was contacted.

The grief we are experiencing over Eddie’s loss is, as you might expect, different from anything we’ve experienced as a family before. My wife and her sister are deeply troubled because Eddie was “alone” when he died. But I believe something different and more is weighing on us. Eddie was without family at his side at the time of his death. He has also been without family grief and remembrance for the fourteen years since then. And we in the family share with him in this latter aloneness, because through that whole time, we didn’t know.

Not knowing, we have not been able to remember him as we would have wanted; not knowing the loss, it has gone un-grieved. But now, in our awareness of our not knowing, the doubled depths of our mutual aloneness with Eddie have become tangible, a deeply marked wound of emptiness in our hearts.

It is as if we’ve been naked all these years and, just now finding out, we’re not so sure how to digest this news, not at all sure what is happening, why we feel so disoriented, even cheated. And, but, here is the light: not knowing truncated, effectively denied us our need to engage loss, to grieve and, over time, to find meaning. This need, not fully appreciated, yet shared by all peoples, was enabled to surface only through awareness.

Being un-aware of loss, being detached from this painful situation, did not relieve us of suffering; it stripped us of a fundamental and meaningful human experience, without which, we are…less.

Buddha teaches us that there is no liberation without the awareness and recognition of the suffering and pain inherent in human life. It is not that we transcend suffering or leave it behind, but that we transcend and leave behind the false idea that suffering, grief and loss are to be avoided. This is not only the starting point of Buddha’s teaching, but also where it stays.

With as full awareness as we can muster, we are encouraged to turn toward our suffering and the suffering of others. And by virtue of that turning awareness, we are freed. Freed to go more deeply into the heart of our own humanity, freed to come to know who we really are and to find true and sustaining meaning and joy.

For me and my family, this turning awareness allows us to once again hear Eddie’s voice, to respond in kind, to recognize our broken and fractured hearts and to begin on our way to becoming healed and whole.


For Eddie

Tides of silenced tears
Of lost grief
Of years of unknowing
—you’d died—
Alone amidst our unknowing
Stripped of the gift of ache and grief
We are lost

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