Thoughts From a Retreat

Permanence is the death we all long for–stasis, quiescence, no more irritation or excitation. This is, according to Freud, thanatos, the reality principle, or “death drive,” that lies beyond eros, beyond the pleasure principle, or “sex drive.” It’s tempting to oppose the drive for sex as a drive for life and creation against the drive for death and destruction, but it’s not that simple. Thanatos is the drive for peace, comfort, safety, and ease, whereas eros is the drive for change, or, to grossly simplify, thanatos is the drive for permanence and eros is the embrace of impermanence.

The practical problem this causes us is that permanence is a wholly fabricated notion. Not only are there no observed instances of permanence (though, admittedly, there are observed instances of apparent persistence), there isn’t even the theoretical possibility of permanence. Just as the ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle cannot coexist on this planet with liquid water, no instance of permanence is possible in a reality of impermanence. This means that the sense of well being that we seek from a good meal, an evening at home, a night out with friends, a tidy desk, all manner of intoxicants, having everyone strip-searched and scanned before boarding a plane, or having the NSA read the whole Internet is delusional. This is, unfortunately, a much more widely shared and more difficult to dismiss delusion than most.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead addresses just this delusion, over and over again, offering many variations on the following (as translated by Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa):

…if you do not recognize in this way, you will be afraid of them and escape, and so go on to more suffering. If you do not recognize in this way, you will see all the blood-drinking deities as Lords of Death, and you will fear them. You will feel terrified and bewildered and faint. Your own projections will turn into demons and you will wander in samsara…

…by recognizing all these appearances as the natural radiance of your own mind, your own radiance will merge inseparably with the light and images, and you will become a buddha. O child, whatever you see, however terrifying it is, recognize it as your own projection; recognize it as the luminosity, the natural radiance of your own mind. If you recognize in this way, you will become a buddha at that very moment, there is no doubt.

In short, all that you experience is a projection of your own mind, and so long as you believe those projections to be separate from you, to be something from which you must seek protection, you will continue to suffer. Comfort and somnolence, odd as it may seem, can only lead to further suffering. It’s wakeful, unflinching engagement with experience as it is that leads to liberation. And in a further affront to our intuition, to sleep is to do something, but to maintain awakeness is to do nothing at all.

If you watch your mind very carefully as you fall asleep, you’ll notice that rather than settling, it busily takes up some thread that leads it away from here and now and runs discursively after it. What you see becomes obscured even before your eyes close as your focus shifts to whatever your mind pursues. You can fight your mind, trying to force it to remain focused on your immediate experience, but then you’re doing two opposed things at once, and that’s not very pleasant. If instead you relax your mind and do nothing, your immediate experience will become calm and clear. You will be fully awake and engaged–for an instant. You’ll have to stay relaxed, one instant at a time, to stay awake. Though this requires no effort, it’s inconceivably difficult, all the more so given our habituation to a delusional sense of comfort.

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