Before you react too strongly to the title of this post, secular or religious, I want to propose an idea. Suppose you were an explorer back in the days before every piece of land had been charted and recorded. Suppose, also, that you encountered a strange land unknown to your fellow countrymen.
Your first desire upon seeing this land is to share the experience with everybody back home. So what do you do? Perhaps you create a detailed map, or paint a portrait of the landscape, or even take samples of the local fauna and preserve them.
But when you go back home with your recordings of this enchanting place, something unexpected happens. Your countrymen cannot appreciate the place as you did. They hold up the maps and cherish them. They stare at the painting and mistake your depiction for the reality of what it’s like to “be” there. They even equate the place to the leaves and roots you preserved for them.
Obviously, this is silly. All you wanted to do was show this place to the other people—instead, they’ve mistaken the individual items and representations for the thing in itself!
This same phenomenon happens in culture, religion, philosophy, and more. One of the most loaded “places” to represent is God. Those who experienced God, or the Absolute, had no way of representing it to others aside from using symbols and metaphors.
The trouble is, these symbols and metaphors have become equivalent to the thing being represented. This is the root of misunderstanding and ignorance. To actually understand and grasp the idea of the Absolute, or enlightenment, or anything else, we must abandon all labels, metaphors, and symbols, and seek the object in itself.
Throughout our days, we love to “do things.” We may not appreciate specific activities, such as washing dishes or going to work at 6 AM, but we are certainly enthralled by the process of being busy with “things.” And very often, we do these “things” out of sheer force of habit, or worse, out of fear. We might stay up all night to finish a presentation, for example, because we’re horrified at the prospect of being fired or failing a course. Deep beneath each of these actions, however, there is an expectation that the thing will make us content. If we work hard enough and make enough money, we can retire stress-free. If we drink enough beer, we’ll be rocketed into ecstasy. But deeper than even these expectations, tremendously deep beneath the surface, we are doing these things to be more peaceful.
This might seem paradoxical when it comes to things like skydiving or seeing an action film. Why would we ever expect, or want, to derive peace from these things? The short answer is that we don’t. Excitement is how our human brains understand the abstract idea of “peace.” In my eyes, peace corresponds to a state of absolute acceptance of the world, a place of radical love, ease, and simplicity. It might even be compared to the Christian notion of God. Even when we’re engaged in high-stimulation activities, we are doing them with the expectation that we will experience a dopamine hit that resembles the deep, abiding state of peacefulness. We are, in essence, overshooting our target unconsciously.
If we want to be more peaceful, we must make it our priority. We cannot consider peace to be the result of doing something, or the reward at the end of a long, blundering tunnel. Peace is the goal in and of itself. We can choose to be right in an argument with our spouse, or we can choose peace by listening to them and working with the reality of the moment. We can choose to buy new shoes and get a temporary self-esteem boost, or we can choose peace by opting out of the cycle of desiring-getting-desiring.
One of the most regrettable human conclusions is that peace is somehow beyond us, and must be attained through physical actions. Peace is the ocean, and we are the fish. It is so pervasive that we overlook it on a daily, and momentary, basis. If we want to be more peaceful, we must do nothing beyond slowing down and listening.
Peace is here, peace is now.
If you want to go a bit deeper into this topic, feel free to check out my video on the topic (posted below), or read this post on how the brain conditions us to look away from peace. Have a peaceful day.
Admit it to yourself, if only as an intellectual exercise (it’s alright, I won’t judge): We like to be unhappy sometimes.
Now, before everybody fetches their pitchforks, let me offer a brief explanation. When I say that we like to be unhappy, I merely mean that unhappiness—like all other states of mind and emotional situations—has a hidden purpose, and gives some recessed corner of our lizard brains a kick that keeps us wanting more. In short, something about the act of being upset has fomented addiction. It doesn’t matter what the particular flavor of this upset is; it could be sadness, or anger, or even shame. We’re as neurologically addicted to feeling low as we are to euphoric states.
Upon first glance, this might seem ridiculous. Why would we like to be unhappy? Our lives, for the most part, are an elaborate dance intended to stave off those very feelings. Or so it would seem.
When we’re upset, particularly due to someone else’s carelessness or apparent faults, we’re often filled with a sense of righteousness. We might feel superior to somebody who insulted us, then go down the rabbit hole of planning even more severe insults to “teach them a lesson.” If we lost something dear to us, we might cling to the bittersweet flood of emotions that accompany our separation from the object. Even the act of feeling shameful or guilty can become an exercise in self-glorification, urging us to see ourselves as unworthy or unlovable creatures that must wallow in pity for ourselves.
The human brain is remarkably adroit at riding the waves of emotional experiences, both high and low. What both of these extremes offer us is a (perhaps temporary) boost to the self-image. When we’re gripped with pleasure, our minds are filled with the idea “I love this, I want more of it.” Likewise, when we’re in the depths of misery, our minds overflow with thoughts such as “Poor me, I hate this, I wish it were different.”
Who or what is this mysterious “I” that keeps intruding on experience?
As we can see from the examples above, the sense of “I” only intrudes once the event in question has come and gone. The inciting incident—eating ice cream, for example, or going through a breakup—almost always occurs without our sense of self turning inward. It’s only in the aftermath, when our brains begin to churn and digest their own contents, that we are beset with “I” talk.
This, in part, is why “we” like to be unhappy. The sense of self (or ego, if you prefer) loves fuel in any form, whether pleasurable or painful. It loves to be prized and loves to be a victim. It seeks out any and every experience it can, craving some anchor to reify itself and prove to you that it deserves the spotlight.
There’s no trouble with this on its own, of course. The nature of the self is one of grasping and constant conflict with the nondual nature of reality. In order for a self to exist, it must necessarily be in conflict with the world it perceives “around it.” The only trouble comes when we start to believe our “I” talk, solidifying it and paying it in the currency known as our attention. The worst thing we can do for painful self-talk is feed into it and treat it as an accurate map of reality. There’s a difference, after all, between skillfully attending to our moment-to-moment experience and drowning in the mental chatter of a highly emotional situation.
Eckhart Tolle has referred to this phenomenon as the activity of the “pain body,” which he likens to an entity siphoning energy out of us. While I think that even this concept lends too much reality to the unhappiness-craving element of our mind, it does vividly illustrate the fact that part of the human “wiring” eagerly responds to the fuel of negativity. When walking a spiritual path, we must not only rein in our desires—we must recognize and navigate, with utter equanimity, our tendencies to bask in pain and pity.
To wrap things up, and perhaps to avoid being hunted down and burned at the stake for such an absurd claim, I don’t believe that we inherently like to be unhappy. I do believe, however, that we have conditioned ourselves to believe that unhappiness and emotional valleys are things we deserve to suffer. Whether the brain follows this programming out of genuine guilt complexes or for a shot of dopamine, ultimately, doesn’t matter much.
What matters is that we remain aware of our most peculiar addiction, and we give it as much comfort and mindfulness as every other part of our experience.
If you’d like to learn a bit more about how we construct good/bad paradigms and imprison ourselves in them, check out my latest Youtube video.
This post will be a short, but hopefully sweet, one. It will be about problems—seemingly the bread and butter of the human experience. So often in life we feel besieged by problems that arise from external situations and individuals. We feel that these problems are thrust upon us, and that we are forced to either respond to them or be crushed by them. The scope and severity of these external problems need not be considered—their mere existence is enough to trouble us. Even the idea that they might be on their way is troubling. And worse yet, there are too many for us to reasonably contend with.
Mounting bills, health scares, elections gone haywire, pandemics, scratched car paint, lost wallets. You name it, it’s either happened, happening now, or will happen. We cannot seem to outswim these tidal waves of troubles.
But at the center of these problems is the root fact that we have labeled them problems. And a problem, almost by its own definition, is fundamentally outside of us, pressing upon this delicate skin that we call a self. It is an external action threatening your internal state. So, through this lens, we can see that there is strict duality. There is the problem, A, affecting you, B. There is no unity, only contention. The problem must be dealt with in order for you to be happy.
Returning to our tidal waves analogy, however, it becomes apparent that even if we manage to find and bring about a satisfactory conclusion to our problem, we will soon be assaulted by another problem, another wave on the ocean. And thus we will go on, eternally finding, fixing, and being overcome by problems, always hoping, inwardly praying, that if we fix enough, we will find contentment and eventually reside in a state free of problems.
Now, reading that statement, you will probably see the absurdity of it on an intellectual level. Life is never “problem free,” right? You might respond by saying that life is a long process of improving aspects of our life to be as happy and comfortable as possible. But even in this situation, the only reward for such diligence is death. We cannot evade death, cannot intellectualize it or disregard it. So we see that even if we resolve all of our earthly problems, our bodies will never be able to endure for eternity.
What’s the solution, then? Sit around and let ourselves be overrun by troubles? No, of course not. When we’re hungry, we don’t need to debate whether or not it’s right to eat. When we see an animal with its foot stuck in something, we don’t need to question if we ought to help them be free. We would not consider these situations to be problems, only “events.” Why is that? Put simply, it’s because we’ve disabused ourselves of the illusion that we are a victim. We are living with the immediate, concrete reality of the situation. We do what must be done, not because we’ve made a decision to be righteous or free of problems, but because it’s what the situation asks of us.
There is no problem that should be divorced from this mindset. In fact, when properly seen, there is no event that we can even call a problem. As mentioned above, a problem requires a subject and object to function. Somebody must be harmed or troubled by something. In order to respond fully to life and make the best decision possible at any given moment, we must close the gap between the problem and the individual. There is no problem, there is nobody being harmed by one.
When we see the world in this way, dispelling any notions of victimhood or personal suffering, we are able to become one with our “problems” and see that they are simply the result of the world playing itself out. If we regard a situation as simply being the state of how things are, rather than a distortion of how our life “should be,” we are free to engage with it using our full attention and compassion.
The next time you catch yourself feeling like a problem has entered your life, take a step back and listen to the internal chatter of the one who feels wounded. “I can’t do this.” “I just want this to be over with.” “I hate this.”
Who is speaking to you? It can’t be you, can it? If it were truly you speaking, why would you need to verbalize your own thoughts… to yourself? Why would you need to narrate your genuine feelings? Wouldn’t you already know them all and internalize them?
But even this “victim voice” is not a problem. It’s like a snake—neither harmful nor out of place, unless we choose to pick it up and swing it around. Or worse yet, to believe that it is “us.” Let the mind chatter, let the body play out its drama.
Before I get into this review, I’d like to point out that everybody is at a different stage in the process of meditation. In the same way that a doctor prescribes different medication for different ailments, we need to find the tools, techniques, and approaches that work best for us as we are. With that in mind, the Headspace app is an appealing option to anybody from complete beginners to seasoned practitioners because of its wide range of practices. I myself used it for about a year, and got to know its functions and limitations fairly well. The question is, is it worthwhile to upgrade it and receive the full package? The answer, as in most things in life, is “it depends.”
To start off, let’s look at what Headspace can and can’t do. Headspace is primarily a guided meditation app that features a selection of prerecorded tracks, with a few bells and whistles such as an achievement system and targeted cognitive programs to reduce things like anxiety or insomnia. It is not a live support line for meditation, nor is it a one-on-one program intended to sharpen your meditation based on your personal progress. It is, instead, a gentle and often effective introduction into basic meditation techniques that are secular but clearly influenced by Buddhist practices.
Now, onto the nitty-gritty—what does it excel at, and why did I eventually give it up?
Pros of the Headspace app
In general, the meditation “leader,” Andy, is quite good at what he does. The guided meditations are really what you’re paying for, and I think his narrations are often worth the price of admission. They’re concise, well-spoken, and tailored toward those who need that extra dose of reassurance when first establishing a practice. Andy provides convenient “guiding nudges” throughout the various tracks, such as offering feedback on when to return to the breath, how to feel the body in more subtle ways, how to sharpen and expand attention, et cetera. He clearly knows what he’s talking about and has a gentle, welcoming tone that makes meditation far less daunting.
Another bonus for beginning meditators is the wide variety of choice in meditation types and a streak system. In essence, it doesn’t matter which type of meditation you do in a day—whether it’s creativity-stoking practice or anger reduction—as long as you actually meditate. You’re rewarded for your sits with an adorable little brain avatar that seems more and more enthused with each session you complete.
When we begin meditating, we often need these extrinsic reminders of success. Tangible cognitive benefits can seem few and far between in those opening weeks. So to that end, the Headspace app does an admirable job of keeping beginners glued to the cushion day after day. The variety in the meditation tracks also covers everything from concentration-based meditation to body scans to metta practices, though all of these are presented in a secular manner in accordance with Andy’s neutral views.
Some may seem the secular approach as a bonus, others may not. The meat of the experience, however, is robust, at least on a surface level. The meditations have various durations, allowing you to squeeze in a quick session on the bus or while waiting for your dinner to heat up. They also seem focused on different skill sets, and can genuinely help to round out your arsenal of tools for meditation techniques.
So, why did I leave?
Cons of the headspace app
Cliche as it sounds, you will and should reach a point at which you feel “I am the master now,” thus succeeding the app as your own teacher (or at least, allowing you to find a flesh-and-blood teacher). The Headspace app has plenty of content to chew on, but after a while, you’ll start to realize two things about the huge amount of choices.
First off, choice is not always good. There’s a reason we’re often encouraged by spiritual teachers to dig one hole a hundred feet deep rather than digging a hundred one-foot holes. When we have access to unlimited varieties of meditation lengths, styles, themes, and practices, we never really dig into the heart of the experience and get our footing. We need to master a technique to reap the truly deep benefits of the practice. It is, in fact, a part of the mind itself that loves to play new games and go after shiny objects. We need to train this aspect of ourselves, not continually feed it.
The second realization is that the variety is fairly superficial. Once you’ve learned one concentration-based practice, you’ve learned them all. They may be labeled “creativity” or “fitness” meditations, but at their core, they’re breath meditation tracks with a few sentences about visualization thrown in. When you develop your own practice long enough, you’ll be able to effectively focus your attention on what matters to you without needing verbal prompting. The same can be said for the gratitude practices or metta techniques in the app. They are mostly re-skinned versions of one another.
Another issue I had with the app was the focus on “streaks.” While it is definitely important to meditate on a daily basis, we need to find intrinsic motivation for doing so. Relying on another (whether it’s a person, app, or community) to keep you accountable for meditation is building up a faulty foundation. If we’re too focused on our streak, we might start to do shorter and shorter meditations just to get our daily point. But as we all know, meditation is an inward, non-goal-oriented practice. It is about the absence of striving. Therefore, we should cultivate a mind that seeks meditation because it wants to rest in its own nature, not achieve something through the act.
In line with this, the app itself seems to be leading its users toward a state of non-use. What I mean by this, effectively, is that the more “advanced” tracks actively rely on continually lengthening the periods of time in which you meditate in silence. By the time you’ve “mastered” the higher-level tracks, you are essentially meditating with no training wheels, and the app becomes a glorified timer. It’s wonderful that Andy and his program can help people reach that stage and feel comfortable in it, but it calls the usefulness of the app into question after a certain point.
I have to make two separate recommendations on this point. If you’re an experienced meditator who has been fortunate enough to attend a retreat or otherwise achieve insights in your practice, there’s little to gain from Headspace. If you feel grounded and confident in your practice, you are probably also fine without it. Additionally, I feel that even if you want to follow guided meditations for one reason or another, there are better options that have far more utility in their free versions, such as Insight Timer or even Youtube videos. At $70.00 for a one-year subscription, it’s not the most expensive program out there, but it’s also not worth the price if you won’t be using all of its features consistently.
If you’re a total beginner, the Headspace app can be a game-changer for helping you to establish a routine and keep your practice consistent. It’s also an excellent gift for somebody else if you want to help them get their feet wet with meditation. That being said, ultimately you’ll need to remove your reliance on the app’s back-clapping and cornucopia-like approach if you want to make deep and meaningful progress. You’ll need to replace Andy’s voice with your own inner wisdom.
The Buddha once used the analogy of a raft to describe our dependence on views and beliefs. He said, in a paraphrased way, that we would do well to use a raft to cross a river and reach the other side. But we must abandon the raft when we find ourselves carrying it on our backs for no reason. The same can be said of the Headspace app. Use it as a raft to reach the other side, and once you arrive, know when to find your own way.
Procrastination is one of those seemingly inescapable pitfalls in the human condition. We all do it, in both trivial and grand ways, even though it doesn’t serve any outward purpose. It’s not quite the same as hesitation, which is fear-based, nor is it exactly rooted in laziness. We simply believe that we’ll do our particular task later. In light of this, I have a different idea of why we procrastinate. Fundamentally, procrastination is built upon the delusion that we will always have time available to us. It relies upon our ignorance of how reality functions. If you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, you’ll have to see through the concept of time itself.
What is Time?
This is an awfully heavy question for an article about how to stop procrastinating, but hear me out. Time is the “fuel” that allows our procrastination to keep running. When we procrastinate, we’re not denying that something needs to be done, we’re just waiting for a less boring, more inspired moment to do that thing. And the abundance of time is what allows us to feel safe and satisfied with that choice.
But at its core, what is time? Most physicists can tell you that time is a strange thing. We perceive time at a certain rate because of the nature of our brains and sensory organs. We “receive” objects at the speed of light, for example, which is why we’re able to see the past states of planets, stars, and so forth when we gaze up into the night sky. We’re not seeing those objects as they are now, but as they were. And the reason for this is the speed of information for an observer. “Time” would have to advance extremely rapidly for you to see how those celestial objects look in that very moment, from the same distance.
This is also the reason we can travel “into the future,” but not into the past. Simply put, there is no past. There is no future, either, but we can “travel there” by accelerating to absurdly high speeds, or by simply living. Every moment, we are theoretically “entering the future.” Once again, this is because the observer (you) will be moving to a different location in spacetime.
So time is not a resource, but an explanation of an absurdly complex phenomenon of perception. We cannot bottle up time or pay for things using it. It does not exist independently of us, the observers, because it relies on our perception to function in the way we know it.
For now, however, let’s boil it down to a simple truth: perception is the irreducible factor in our perception of time. We cannot exist independently of time, it is woven into us. Because of that, there is no past and no future—they are both contained within us in the present. When we think of some future deed, it is done in the present. When we reflect on the past, we do it through memories in the present.
The truth is, we are always here, always now.
Stopping Procrastination in the Present
When we see through the veil of time as a “river” that pulls us from the past to the future, allowing us ample time to perform our tasks, we are filled with renewed vigor to get things done. This is because we have a paradigm shift, one that allows us to stop procrastinating naturally.
There is no future task waiting to be done, there is only the universe waiting for us to do what we must or should do, now.
There is always something you could be doing, in this very moment of “now,” that serves the ideal life you wish to create. When we sit around eating chips instead of writing our thesis, it is now. When we get up and go to the desk to work, it is now. When we finish our thesis, it is now.
No matter what we do, it is always the present moment. There will never be any future state in which you perform an action—everything fundamentally is done now. Even if you’re planning what to do in the future, it will be done (you guessed it) now.
This is not to say, of course, that all actions occur in the literal same moment. We can conceptualize the past and future for the sake of planning in conventional reality. We wouldn’t go to the store and buy diapers for a child who hasn’t been born yet, for example. But everything in our lives, from our birth to our death, occurs in the cradle of the present moment. And everything between those two posts, including moving jobs, having children, and becoming a billionaire, is contingent upon our ability to recognize what must be done in the present moment, and then doing that thing.
Each and every moment is a gateway into the next iteration of “now.” If we choose to procrastinate on studying, we waste the precious gift of nowness that could’ve been spent on sharpening our knowledge and getting a better test grade. And that test grade, depending on where and when it’s received, could mean the difference between a dream career and settling for less. This is just one concrete example, but it proves the point: the choices we make now will ripple forward and affect our course in life, no matter what we choose.
So the answer to the question of how to stop procrastinating is both simple and demanding. If we want to stop procrastinating, we must be constantly aware of the shape and form of the present moment. We must keep our senses open, each and every instant, to clearly perceive what must be done.
There is nobody else controlling the “arrow of time” except for ourselves. We are both the archer and the arrow. In this moment, right now, ask yourself what you could be doing to guide your arrow toward the life you envision. Did something come to mind? Good. Now all you have to do is repeat this every moment, over and over, until the pattern fuels itself.
By consistently returning to the immediacy of the present moment and redirecting our energy toward valuable tasks, we retrain the way our minds conceive of action. We no longer choose to procrastinate out of a desire for sensory pleasure, because we see the frail, impermanent nature of it. We choose to do what must be done because of our innate wisdom.
I’ll leave it to one of my favorite teachers, Seung Sahn, to put it plainly:
Death is one of the most illogical things about life. It drives a wedge into our neatly packaged notions of meaning in the world, forcing you to ask an essential question: why would something be born just to die? And when you ask that, you’re thrown into realms of speculation. You wonder if there’s anything after death, if you yourself will experience life after death, and most importantly, what happens when you die.
First of all, we should discuss what death actually is. Most of us would define it as the cessation of a being’s life. When an organism loses its metabolic functions and begins to decay, we say that the organism, whether it’s a human, tree, or microbe, has died. If we knew that thing well, we might even mourn it. This is natural. From an outside perspective, the death of the organism represents the ultimate tragedy. That being will never exist again, not as you knew it. We can never hold it or speak to it or spend time with it again.
In this sense, I agree with hardline atheists and materialists. There is no individual being that survives death and carries on its life as a human, dog, or centipede in some celestial realm. When something dies, the potential of that particular pattern of matter and energy—whether we refer to it as a person, plant, or animal—is gone. If we define death as the extinction of an organism, then death is very real. There is no denying that organisms are born and die all over the world, thousands or millions at a time, on small and large levels. This is how our universe has always functioned.
At the same time, however, this is only true on a level of conventional reality. In the same way that we can say “sugar is sweet,” we can also dissect the idea of sugar into its chemical bonds and use it as a reference point on nutritional packaging. In other words, the experience of sugar is much different from the scientific application of knowledge about sugar. Referring to something through external data is only useful for situations that depend upon external, objective data.
Death is not an objective phenomenon for most of us. It is a deeply striking, personal experience that can’t be reduced to observations or data.
With that in mind, what if the idea of death is simply a category error? What if, in our search to contextualize death, we’ve overlooked the most basic realization of all?
Death is necessitated by birth, after all, and both of these acts require an independent, solitary being entering and leaving an exterior world. As we know on a logical level, however, nothing exists in a vacuum. Beings arise and disappear from the Earth in relation to their parents, and the soil that grew their food, and the sunlight that gives this planet a habitable climate. Beings exist in a living continuum, dependent upon infinite factors beyond our comprehension.
We may not see reality this way, but it’s true. Take away parents, food, air, water, so on and so forth (note, also, that these factors also depend upon countless other factors to exist), and a being would not be there at all. It is a series of aggregates more than an entity.
Now the mystery deepens.
What if the death of the organism is not the death of the being that we cherish? What if birth and death are both equally unreal, on a level of ultimate reality? What existed before your birth, and what remains when you die?
Are you alive?
Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn was famous for “attacking” his students with incomprehensible statements about life and death. He would sometimes demand answers for things that seem nonsensical on the surface, such as why students insist on “dragging this corpse around.” What he was trying to point out is the disparity between our true nature and the forms that we perceive to be ours. We claim ownership over things that are only “ours” because they are familiar to us and have become part of our collection over time.
For a quick thought experiment to show where this is going, I’d like to pose two branching questions now:
One, are you aware of reading these words? If so, how? Who or what knows that your eyes and brain are comprehending the information?
And two, what is the next thing you’re going to think of? Can you predict it?
For now, suffice it to say that we take ownership of a great deal of things that are not “us.” We take the ideas, fears, hopes, appearances, and experiences of a particular organism and learn, over time, that they belong to us. We use the words “I” and “you” so much that we identify with them on a one-to-one scale. “You look great today.” “I have a big nose.” “You always say that.” We plant our flags in these things and make them into concrete facts.
But do we really know that any of us own these things?
You can look up some fascinating experiments in which dummy hands, positioned in such a way as to create an illusion of belonging to a participant, are struck with mallets at random. The participants react as though their real hands have been struck. This is a brief yet telling example of the way in which the mind clings to form at any opportunity. Living organisms, through millions of years of evolution, have developed a firm grip on physical bodies for the purpose of survival.
The real question is, who or what is perceiving the thoughts of the body? All day long, we play host to thousands of thoughts, feelings, memories, and opinions, but we never question their origins or their purpose. What if we, in fact, are not our bodies, nor our mental activity? What if we are simply the emptiness, the substratum, that holds consciousness? What if we are the empty, aware space interacting with form, yet remaining formless?
One of the most profound experiences a human being can have is that of “ego death,” or ego dissolution. In moments of total silence, when the mind’s activity slows to a crawl and receives direct attention, we often realize that “we” are not there at all. We are watching, but we are not substantial, not made of anything, not living inside a suit of skin.
This is the force that goes beyond death.
What survives when “you” die
So if we are not the body, and not the mind, then what really persists beyond death? I would hesitate to call it a soul, as a soul has definite properties. We can talk about what a soul is or is not. Many people assume that their soul is wise, or kind, or has preferences. But when we die, and the brain and body shut down, there is no choice, no preference, no characteristics of any kind. Our nature is revealed to be like water. Shapeless, colorless, tasteless. It is simply there.
What occurs in consciousness at the moment of death is anybody’s guess. I would suspect that it is similar to what occurred in consciousness prior to the birth of this body. It is unknowable, forgotten as it occurs. But fundamentally, it is not “death” in the way that we think of death. It may be better called a return. A return to a home we cannot remember.
After death, we might say there is only emptiness. But even emptiness is not “nothingness.” Many materialists assert that after death, there is absolutely nothing, because there is no body or brain to make sense of the world. In one sense, they are correct. The person who existed as John or Jane will not pass on to another world or be reincarnated.
But at the same time, when we mourn the death of people or worry about our own death, we are not truly mourning the loss of the organism and its qualities. We are mourning the “spark” that seemed to be within the person, the spark that remained no matter how old they grew, or how they looked, or where they moved. We mourn the loss of their presence.
And with this in mind, we shouldn’t fear death, for it’s simply the external manifestation of a tremendous internal process.
The true nature of John or Jane, the ever-watchful presence that is aware of its own awareness—the thing reading these words right now within you—cannot die, for it was never born.
Philosophers have been pondering the meaning of life since time immemorial, but the answer may be in the one place we never thought to look. When we ask ourselves about the meaning of life, we make two assumptions. One is that life is somehow separate from us, or that we can exist in any other state than life. The other is that there must be a meaning to existence. The true meaning of life, if such a thing can be expressed, is actually found in realizing the inherent lack of meaning, or narratives, in life. In short, it is awakening.
Every religion and spiritual tradition has some equivalent to the Buddhist notion of enlightenment. In modern times, we see enlightenment as a metaphor, not a cognitive event that can radically reshape our consciousness and relationship with the world. But enlightenment, or full awakening, is real, and it is the most important goal one can undertake.
While reading this, you may have an immediate mental reaction of defensiveness. You might assert that awakening is just a buzzword, and if it is in fact real, it’s not nearly as important as some other goals—such as having children, for example, or curing cancer.
We go about our lives trying to achieve various goals like these, often in a state of unease, unhappiness, or fear. We worry that if we don’t live up to our expectations or the expectations of others, our lives will be a failure. We will, in fact, have missed out on “what it all means.” We also have a belief that if we just tick enough boxes in our life goals list, then we’ll be happy. Truly, permanently happy.
In response to this, I urge you to consider dreams. What are dreams? They are lifelike experiences that we all traverse each and every night, whether or not we remember them. They are entire worlds and stories built up by our minds, for our minds. Within a dream, we typically have a burning sense of urgency to get something done, or to fix something, or to flee from something. We may spend the entirety of our dream preoccupied with these tasks, never once questioning the substratum that comprises the dream.
Once we realize the nature of a dream, which can be achieved randomly or through practice with lucid dreaming, the dream loses all fear. We see that it is nothing more than a convincing illusion over which we have tremendous control. And even if we lack control, we realize we can’t be harmed anyway. We are dreamers spinning stories for ourselves. Our goals in the dreams may still exist, but we pursue them freely and out of joy rather than distress.
But what if we don’t realize we’re dreaming?
If I were to approach you in a dream and tell you about the real world, which you might access through “awakening” in some form, you might think I’m insane. You would probably have the same reaction that most people have to the idea of awakening in our world. When Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, or other religious groups talk about ideas of elevated consciousness, we tend to dismiss them because we cannot imagine what they actually mean. Our own consciousness is very familiar to us, and asking us to conceive of a different sort of consciousness is like asking a fish how it feels to live on land.
I don’t mean to call our world a literal dream, or to imply that spiritual awakening moves us to a different dimension (or wakes up some alien in a virtual-reality rig). What I want to call attention to is our presumption that our world, as we currently know it, is precisely how reality is. We can live for many years without ever tasting another form of consciousness. But death, which eventually comes to all of us, will dispel our ideas of reality whether we like it or not.
There are many metaphors and analogies to describe the experience of awakening, but none of them will make much sense until you begin to taste the real deal. Only then will you start to see the calls for awakening present everywhere, in everything. Buddhists might describe these omnipresent reminders as the innate wisdom of our Buddha-nature.
Awakening does not destroy or erase any of the other worthwhile goals in our lives, such as raising children or taking care of our loved ones. The only things awakening destroys are the delusions and defilements of our own minds. When we awaken, which is to say, remove the veils between ourselves and reality, we are not moving into any new domain of life. We’re simply seeing our lives with clearer, gentler eyes. We see our lives without fear or ignorance.
So with this in mind, I see awakening as the true “goal” for life. It shows us precisely what is real and what is a waste of our precious time as human beings. On a personal level, I have never met an awakened individual who has ever grappled with the idea of meaning in life. Once awakening occurs, we inherently understand our place in “this” and what has to be done. We find unbridled joy and satisfaction in everything we do.
If you still believe I’m just talking about awakening as a concept, then keep living. Eventually you will find that you yearn for something deeper, for that missing puzzle piece in existence. Someday, someplace, you will have a taste of awakening as a real experience.
Editing a novel is a source of immeasurable suffering for writers around the world. And I totally get it.
When the Buddha set out to understand why we suffer, he began by examining our common conception of phenomena in the world. By peering deeply into them, he understood their nature. And their nature, he said, reflected the three marks of existence—qualities that define every object, sensation, and experience we will ever encounter in the conventional world.
One of these marks is anicca, or impermanence. Nothing will ever stay the same, even if we sincerely wish it might. Our bodies decay, the stars gradually burn up their fuel, and day invariably cycles between light and dark. Even on the smallest levels, quantum particles are in constant flux. Sounds, too, are created through oscillation. Without movement and change, our world would not function as we know it.
By living in ignorance or defiance of impermanence, however, we invite untold amounts of suffering into our lives. This is because we cling to things that will not provide us with lasting satisfaction. Much like children laying their bodies down in front of sand castles and weeping when they’re swept away, we become so lost in the narratives, dramas, and games of our existence that we forget the temporary nature of our possessions, and subsequently make ourselves unhappy when we lose them.
When closely examined, we will find that there is nothing to which we can cling that will bring us permanent happiness. Our bodies, pastimes, memories, familiar places, and friends will all perish or be irreparably changed by the passage of time. One might say that enlightenment is nothing more than internalizing this reality and living in harmony with it.
Notice that in this context, suffering does not equate
pain. There will always be a degree of pain associated with living. Even if we
are unattached to our possessions, we will grieve over the death of loved ones.
We will be disheartened when tragedy strikes our community. The Buddha
described this situation with the analogy of a man who has been struck with two
arrows. One arrow, suffering, can be pulled out of the wound. It represents the
mental reaction to the first arrow, which is pain. The arrow of pain cannot be
extracted. We must learn to make peace with pain. If we can make peace with it,
we will have dissolved the arrow of suffering.
What does this have to do with editing a novel? It’s to remind us that there is bound to be a degree of unease, sadness, or frustration in this stage, if it’s done properly. The act of editing is akin to hanging your creation up by its feet in a slaughterhouse, then using a sharp knife to carve away the fat and leave behind something clean and presentable.
As with the process of butchery, if you see the book as a living thing, it will make it unbearably difficult to make your cuts. You must see it impassively, as merely a project rather than your project. And yet no matter how distant you feel in relation to the novel, all acts of cutting produce some pain. You, the author, will be the one who feels this pain.
If you’ve never had an editor from a publishing house take a whack at your work and then pass it back to you, this may seem absurd. You may be your own editor, treating your work with a gentle hand that comes with neither pain nor suffering. But understand that there will come a time when you will feel this pain, even if it arrives because of your own recognition.
You will be asked to “kill your darlings,” as the famous phrase goes, and transmute or outright destroy work that represents countless hours of your life.
As I mentioned earlier in this book, writing involves the core of somebody’s being. Writing a novel or short story is an emotional, demanding process that often leaves a piece of ego firmly entrenched between the lines. And when we kill our darlings, we are not only killing the words, but ourselves, the being that produced those words and clung to them so fiercely all this time.
Therefore, I encourage you to develop equanimity toward the editing process long before the draft returns with red ink. To do this, we should understand both why is editing is beneficial as well as how to mentally frame our approach to editing a novel.
My frame has always been centered around impermanence. To understand why, we need only look as far as the phrase “writing is rewriting.” It has been put forth by numerous writers, and represents a critical realization we would do well to keep in our minds while we edit.
Because of its all-encompassing nature, we should first address our approach rather than the benefits of editing. If we go into the editing cycle with gritted teeth and our hackles raised, we will get nothing done. This passive hostility toward changes in the manuscript is almost always driven by an egoic attachment to the writing.
Due to the time and energy placed in our words, we are either offended or disturbed when somebody suggests altering our work. In many cases, we are utterly convinced that our writing is flawless as-is, and that any exterior influence or major story revisions will destroy the creative fruits of our labor. I call this the “bruising hand” argument. Only you and you alone have the tender skill necessary to pluck your fruit—anybody else will destroy it. You would be best-served by abandoning this argument from the start.
At this point, you may be wondering how I can advocate being so open to sweeping changes and allowing others to collaborate on your project. After all, writing is about the exploratory, free nature of expression, which should be uncontrived and built upon organic tensions. Why would we need to restructure a plot, or deepen themes, or consider trimming a character? Wouldn’t this undermine the entire ethos of being a discovery-based writer?
Not quite. An analogy to use here is one of gardening. When we want to grow things, we often provide them with sufficient time and space to blossom on their own accord. But to create a stunning landscape or prevent weeds from dominating a yard, we need to use careful, methodical interventions that create order out of the chaos.
Similarly, when we write our first draft of a book, we certainly need to rely on the inherent strength of our minds to capture reality and place it on the page. But after that, among the blood and sweat that accompany editing a novel, we must become engineers. We must be willing to rely on our logical thinking—and the thinking of others—to help us accentuate the particular feelings we are striving to evoke.
If you want to see a perfect example of the mindset
you should carry into the editing process, take a look at a video of Tibetan
monks constructing elaborate sand mandalas. These monks spend hundreds of hours
clustered around wooden boxes, using a variety of tools to layer dyed sand in
mesmerizing and vivid patterns. These works are so precise that one could
mistake them for paintings, weavings, or 3D-printed artworks. But they are all
done by hand, grain by grain. The monks work tirelessly with their brothers for
days and weeks at a time, ensuring that their masterpiece is rendered as
precisely as possible.
Then, they erase the entire mandala.
That’s right—they destroy it all, from top to
bottom, often with little more than a few sweeps of their hands and some air
blown across the mandala’s surface. We may watch a video of this happening and
think it’s a tragic, perhaps barbaric, thing to do to such a majestic creation.
But the monks do not see it this way. They create their mandalas knowing their
fates well in advance. They create them without attachment, without fear,
without the need for praise—they are created for the sake of creation, belonging
to nothing and nobody.
If you start editing a novel with this idea at the forefront of your awareness, you’ll be better equipped to make the changes that service your manuscript, shrug off the extraneous suggestions, and tighten the focus on what your story is truly about, all without the suffering of a personal loss of control. Much like a child, your novel is only yours insofar as you allowed it to come into existence. At some point, the child develops its own agency.
Your goal as a parent is not to stifle the child, guiding it down each and every road you choose, but to support it in its natural phases of development.
A novel arrives at the editing stage with the core of its being already formed, and your role is to amplify its inherent strengths to the best of your ability. You do this by making choices that work in the interest of the story, not for your own gratification or the need to exercise artistic domination.
The last element of a constructive mindset in regards to editing is holding clear intentions. In the same way that we might set intentions prior to meditation or any sort of introspective work, it’s important that we understand why we’re editing. We should not go about our task blindly, hoping we might gain something from the benefits—we should actively pursue them with an express understanding of the desired outcome already in our awareness.
The benefits, in my eyes, are unparalleled opportunities to improve our prose, pacing, themes, and character arcs. More on this in future posts.
Every writer has a different timeline for editing a novel. Some writers begin combing through the manuscript and sharpening it up as soon as they finish writing, while authors such as Stephen King advocate sitting on your manuscript for several weeks or months, aging it like a fine wine, before returning to it.
The former method is understandable; we’re eager creatures, often too eager. We want to have our book done and out of our sight after spending so much energy on it. The latter method may come off as maddening, if not superstitious. It is, however, the route that I take for my own work.
It has everything to do with the magic of time. When we’ve completed a manuscript, we’re sitting on a raw, tender wound that is often birthed with substantial difficulty. We don’t want to prod it too much or dive into the open tissue. By allowing the manuscript to settle in the back of our minds, we can come at it with a new angle of attack, a fresh set of eyes. We are given the crucial distance that allows us to operate without the vexations of pride or haste.
Waiting in this fashion also allows the subconscious residue of the work to churn, over and over, until it processes into a distilled concept of what the book is trying to say. What you want others to gain from it, no less.
Putting off editing a novel also allows us to move on to a new project and cleanse our palates, so to speak. We can enjoy the cool, refreshing dive into another world—a dive that we probably enjoyed when we first began our earlier, now-completed novel.
This is often the time when our creativity is at an all-time peak, since it coincides with uninhibited freedom and a sense of direction. Use the elation of completing one novel to begin the next one. Do it as quickly as possible, as soon as an idea strikes your fancy. You can always travel down a new path if it doesn’t gel with you later on.
Once we actually dive into our edit-ready manuscript, we should be ready to address the areas I listed above. These are all supplementary “polishing” elements that separate your rough manuscript from the seemingly effortless masterpieces put out by writing masters.
The truth is, most first drafts—no matter who pens them—are full of errors and borderline nonsensical segments. A proper editing job smooths out the issues that would ordinarily kill our momentum if we paused to repair them all during the drafting phase. Some of these issues are minor, such as misspellings or swapping character names by accident, while others are akin to demolishing entire city blocks and building them from the ground up.
This, yet again, feeds into the “kill your darlings” mentality. Writing a manuscript is a gritty, raw process, but editing is where we’ll be called upon to utilize our reason, wisdom, and decisiveness to turn the book into something “readable,” for lack of a better term. Remember—writing is for the author, but editing helps to translate your artistic vision into something that serves the audience, too. After all, if nobody can understand what you’re trying to tell them, there’s a failure to communicate.
It’s a tragedy in a medium related to the joy of expression.
In a world obsessed with avoiding the symbolic and literal manifestations of death or dying, meditation on death is a courageous act.
Let’s start by facing it: we hate death.
We place our faith in doctors, lawmakers, soldiers, and policemen to stave off death for us and our families. We quarantine the sick and the terminally ill, often removing them from our sight entirely to focus on the more pleasant, vivacious aspects of living. We doll up corpses and censor combat footage and don’t allow our eyes to linger on roadkill.
To the average person, death is something obscene, something distant, something depressing that evokes fear by merely existing and burdening our consciousness. This is a natural reaction, and certainly one well-explored in psychology and biology, but it is utterly dismissive when we consider the inevitable and universal presence of death.
We will all die; everything and everybody we know will also die.
Many of us would like to erase that knowledge from our minds. But this aversion to death is truly a luxury granted by a sanitized world. We are all living in a fortuitous yet strange period in human history, many of us in fortuitous yet strange societies, that do not witness or parade the brutal reality of death. For long periods of time, we can even ignore the idea of death, or of dying, or of others dying. We can labor on with our lives under the delusion that while death might be out there somewhere, it will not come to us, nor to the ones we hold close.
But we all know, somewhere in our psyche, that we will die.
What’s the point of meditation on death?
Even if by some miracle of technology we manage to avoid the death of the body, we will still suffer psychological death in one way or another. Our idea of who we are and what we possess will die. We might call these “small deaths,” in that they destroy some conception of who we were and thrust us into a new, unfamiliar life.
Parents whose children move away to college often feel bereaved, in some sense, and I suspect that their turmoil is not only for the child. It is because they have, effectively, died as the parents of a child. They have returned to the world they inhabited prior to the child’s birth.
The Buddha correctly identified death as one of the major fears that plagues our life. We fear and abhor this death, he said, because we are ignorant of reality. We do not understand that death is a constant thread woven throughout life, binding together all beings in all forms of existence. We believe that we may outwit or escape death if we strive hard enough. This is where meditation on death comes in to rock our world.
The Buddha believed that nibbana, commonly rendered as nirvana, was a state beyond death. Note that it was not phrased as an escape from death, but a refuge beyond the idea of death itself. We need not think of it as heaven; in fact, we need not consider it to be anything at all. Our minds are incapable of understanding its true reality because we are too entranced in the “dream” of life, too swept up in its rising and falling motions.
To reach this state of total equanimity and peace, however, we need to incline our minds toward that which we resist. We need to stop adding fuel to the fire.
In this case, death can be considered a source of tremendous suffering. When we make it a problem, a fearful aspect of living, we are not truly alive—we are running from a tiger we cannot escape. Thus, to ground ourselves in life, we must learn to die before we physically die. We must be willing to surrender our common ideas of what’s worthwhile in this world.
Maraṇasati, or mindfulness of death, is a Buddhist practice that aims to make us familiar and comfortable with the process of dying. For this reason, we can also term it a meditation on death. By reflecting frequently on the fact that all living things, including ourselves, must die, we gain several precious insights into reality.
One such insight is that death should not be feared, per se, as it’s the natural conclusion to a situation that begins with birth. If we fear the inevitable, we will spend our entire lives cowering. The second insight is that we must focus on our minds on what truly matters, and what’s truly good. We are fortunate to be living as human beings, capable of seeing, experiencing, and changing the things that cause us suffering. Animals lack this awareness of death, and we might say that this unconsciousness strips their lives of some degree of meaning.
Being human—fully, passionately human—means taking advantage of our awareness and all that it entails.
How to meditate on death
To practice maraṇasati, begin by sitting in a comfortable position in a relatively quiet space. Turn your attention toward your breath. Notice that each breath begins, sustains itself, and then dies quietly. We may call it an exhale, but it is death nonetheless. Once you’ve stabilized your attention on the breath, you can begin contemplating the various aspects that comprise your body. You are made of flesh, hair, bones, mucous, cartilage, blood, and so forth.
Look at each of these aspects and think about the fact that they are constantly replaced within you. Someday, they will not be replaced. They will decay and dissolve into the soil. If you can stomach it, imagine these components decaying.
Next, contemplate the fact that death is within you. Not that it will happen someday, but that it is happening now, that you are moving ever-closer to the death of the body every moment. Look back at the breath with this in mind. Watch it moving in and out, cultivating gratitude for the fact that you are still breathing.
Then begin to envision that each inhale and exhale is your last. Focus on them intensely, reminding yourself that it will be your last. Allow the breath to slow and lengthen, bringing you to a deeper state of peace. Dwell in this space as long as possible, returning to the breath and then the ensuing tranquil ground should you become distracted.
Meditation on death may seem morbid, but it is perhaps the most important training you can undertake. If performed on a regular basis, it will not only change the way in which you spend your time and allocate your focus, but it will prepare you for the moment of actual death, should you be fortunate enough to remain lucid and experience the end of this life. In such moments, we fall to the level of our training. If we have repeatedly experienced each breath as our last, then we will be able to enjoy the peace of our actual last breath with untold clarity.