Karma, action, cause and effect: it is said to unfold in the way that the full moon reflects into one hundred bowls of water. The moon has no desire to reflect into them all, but, because there happen to be one hundred bowls of water, there are one hundred moons at the same time. They are part of one moon, the full moon in the sky. Action is just action. Action and reaction unfold to define the change of textures and tastes in that space in-between in which we all live.
Last evening, in the produce section of the grocery store, it was my great pleasure to encounter one of the more remarkable students I am working with at the university where I teach. She has a leadership role on the campus this year which means our relationship is one of colleagues. In the course of our conversation, she remarked that - among the many portfolios she is carrying with wisdom and responsibility - there is also on her mind this week the question of whether the dress shoes that she ordered online will arrive in time for X ring.
It is a tradition on the campus where I teach that the beginning of the end for our graduating students happens at the end of the fall semester when they are awarded their convocation ring, called the X ring, “X” for St. Francis Xavier University. The X-ring ceremony is the beginning of the end of their final year before graduating. The middle of the end will be the February winter break period, when, quite commonly, students will holiday together. The end of the end is the finality of spring convocation.
For our students, the X ring ceremony celebrates friendship and connections with people who have supported them in this important undergraduate time of their lives. It is, in its way, a rite of passage. For many, coming to our residential, undergraduate university, this is their first experience of living outside of their parent’s house. From here, they grow into fuller independence as they move out of undergraduate studies into a next period in their experience of their own adulthood. It is a time of celebration. Yet it also brings into awareness that change is coming. Often, there is a quality of uncertainty as they face the unknown of what will happen after convocation, when this time in their lives – and its regular, familiar patterns of people, places and activity – dissolve. They were not as solid as they appeared: this time in their lives came, and then it was gone.
One of my relatively recent graduates is now teaching English in Korea. It is at his request that we are pausing today to reflect on how to work with change. For him, it is not so much a change of time in his life as it is a change of space, the change of a surrounding landscape. The familiarity of life in Canada is offered up when we dive into the new experience of a different culture far, far away.
Cause and effect, action and reaction: it often happens in familiar, predictable ways, according to familiar and predictable patterns. Sometimes we have the gift of a sharply punctuated change, a sharp pause that articulates a space in-between when there is a dissolving, or a falling away of the points of reference that once gave shape to our world. Buddhists call it “the suffering of change”, the uncomfortable quality of seemingly being suspended in a space in-between.
Change is constant. It is the most consistent part of our experience of being alive, to shift and move, adapt, refocus and realign. The body under an electron microscope, I am told, will reveal itself as 99.999% space. Suspended in space, we are space itself. Dynamic, and shifting, and moving, and never quite as solid as we think: space contains us. It holds us up. Sometimes, it is in the gaps in our lives – the unfamiliar times in-between - that we become unwrapped and most nakedly alive, when all that remains is what lies underneath the familiar…. Such times can be uncomfortable; they are also precious in the fullness of their potential. Because the habits of the old ways have been disturbed, there is space in-between where new things can arise.
Strong, punctuated change of this kind is, therefore, a type of death and rebirth. We step away from what was, and, in that space in-between, whatever we will become reveals itself to us. In-between times are spaces for becoming.
In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this space for becoming is called the “bardo”. The word means “gap”. It commonly refers to the space in-between our physical death and rebirth in a next life, for this is a world where time is round. We live in the space in-between our birth and our death. We are re-born in any space in-between our death and re-birth.
So we are reborn, and reborn, and reborn each time we move from one time, or space, or place in our lives to the next. For this to happen, each time it happens, some part of us must die. The more striking the experience of change, the stronger the potential for us to re-create ourselves, our lives and our world. As we are re-born constantly, in the changing moments of our lives, some part of us is constantly passing away.
Do we grieve the loss of the relationship? Or do we grieve the loss of the person we knew ourselves to be – and the familiar situation - in the relationship now past? We have lost that person. We have lost the self that we knew ourselves to be in that situation, and we lost the familiarity of the situation itself.
The X ring celebration – the receiving of the convocation ring at the end of the fall semester of the final year of undergraduate studies – it is a heightened connection with a friend group that people have been with for four years, because that time is coming to an end.
Travel to a new environment: we lose the familiarity of the place back home we knew so well, the familiarity of the people who surrounded us there, and the familiarity of the self that we knew ourselves to be in that context.
Proportionate to that loss is the potential for us to find out what's left over when those external layers of the familiar in our lives dissolve and fall away. What is left is the limitless possibility of the space in-between because it is without point of reference, in a time new and a place unknown.
So the journey of our lives is punctuated with starting, and stopping, in a space in-between. When there is changing landscape in the external world, there is also a much more clear view of the changing landscapes in the internal world.
The journey of our lives is always one of a texture of various states of mind that we will taste on the inside that become the lens that we use to shape our external experience. In times of strong change, these internal states of mind can become more heightened in our awareness, when the familiarity of the outside world is no longer there to mute or muffle that experience.
For in this process of death and rebirth, we can find ourselves reborn in various different realms. In historic Tibetan tradition, to be re-born in these realms was understood to be quite real. These states of being can also be understood as internal states of mind. As we come and go in the space in-between our deaths and re-births, in this life and the next, the tradition lists six realms we tend to move through, six internal and external textures and tastes in patterns of experience depicted in the visual, picture language of this ancient culture.
The first of these - may all the gods protect us- is a hell realm. Sometimes the mind experiences fear, anger, terror, paranoia. It tries to fight against something, but it is not quite certain what it is that we're fighting against. Then the whole thing builds, and the fear begins to turn on ourselves, and instead of striking out we find ourselves striking in. We ourselves are hurt. It is hard, and red, and fiery, and angry. You decide to run away, because it's like walking on hot coals, but you cannot run away and are turned into charcoal yourself.
The second is called the hungry ghost realm, the preta. Gollum in the film and books “The Lord Of The Rings” is a hungry ghost. The hungry ghost has a very large stomach and a very skinny neck. It is impossible to be fed. One is constantly hungry. There is a sense of poverty - but also a sense of richness as we gather many possessions - and the more we have, the more we want; the more we have, the more we are hungry for more. The hell realm is one of aggression; the hungry ghost realm is one of greed. Once we have something we no longer want it. What we don't have is what we want. There can never be enough. We pick up food, and then it dissolves so we cannot eat it. We pick it up and put it in the mouth, but we cannot swallow it. We are owned by our possessions, hollow and empty.
Third is called the animal realm. The four-footed ones I have known best don’t match this description. The golden retriever I lived with until her transition had a marvelous sense of humor: she smiled often and very often laughed with her eyes. So, the description
“animal realm” does not actually name the number of feet – two-footed or four-footed – it names a state of mind that can be experienced by all kinds of beings with bodies. This state of mind is one of beings who do not laugh. This state of mind is practical, mechanical, systematic, predictable: it does not want to know that there is something that we do not know. There is strong attachment to the predictable, the sensible, the secure, the familiar. It dislikes – does not know how to express, communicate or understand - humor, irony, mystery or magic.
Fourth is the state of mind traditionally called the human realm. It names the tool-building aspect of the human experience. It is rooted in a lust to explore and discover: we build things that will grow and enrich us. Then someone else builds other tools that are bigger, and so we build up bigger and better tools, and it becomes a discovery that is temporary, and impermanent, competitive and dissatisfying: we want bigger, better, stronger, faster. It is never enough.
The fifth is called the jealous god realm. It is one of jealousy, or envy, in the sense of backroom intrigue - manipulative behind the scenes scheming and cunning - trying to manipulate, or contrive - to make a situation be what it is that we want.
Finally, is this state of mind known as the god realm. One gets a glimpse of wisdom, and this leads to a kind of pride because now we have something to maintain. It can lead to a quality of self-absorption, to protect and defend this god-like me.
It is a map of internal textures and tastes – internal landscapes – that can play themselves out in the external world. These internal states can become even more visible to us in times when the familiarity of the external world has somehow fallen away.
Things change. This permits us to see what is left over when what we knew ourselves to be is somehow gone. It can be uncomfortable. It can be experienced as loss.
Yet it is because of this shifting and changing – the sharp, articulate changes in the external and internal landscape – that we are best able to taste space itself. It is like the moment of a sneeze: a tiny moment when the mind goes blank. The one taste of space itself – being itself – becomes recognizable to us only as a result of the contrast between the many and the one.
New, strong experience that articulates the transitions – the gaps – in our lives permits us to experience the natural state of the space – of mind - itself. It is because of the sounds of our notes that we can hear the silence. It is the hard stops – the punctuation – that articulates meaning.
The natural state of mind is steady, strong, awake, clear, insightful, resourceful, intelligent, kind and wise. It is as familiar to us as space itself, because it is space itself, the most familiar thing there could possibly be.
Confusion, not knowing, aggression, lust, jealousy, pride: all of these are expressions of fear. They are states of mind, states of awareness, characterized by tension. Because of that tension, we are able to recognize relaxation.
Because of the contrast, I can be aware of this space in this room: because of the physical walls in the room, I can see and experience the space in-between. When the walls that give shape to our world crumble, collapse ,and fall away - when the way that we experience ourselves and others in the way that we call home changes - what is left over in that space in-between is the only home that is, the only truly familiar, the 99.999% space in which we live all the time.
This is the source of the potential that gives us genuine and lasting satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy. It is said, by tradition, to have one taste: the sweetness of life. We discover that by means of the many tastes – sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent or hot, astringent or dry – that we taste even more sharply when we are confronted with something new. It is by means of the articulation of our joints that we discover the wholeness that we Are.
How do we work with change? We work with it by giving it space, by giving ourselves space, to take a deep breath….and taste…that space in-between in which we all live.
If you have a question that you would like us to think about together, please let me know: you can reach me at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2018, Adela Sandness