It is now the 31st of December in the year 2017 and as tradition would have it, the time for reflection. This particular one bears a special significance as it represents the tenth consecutive year that I have been writing these reflections, and all the more so as I have just returned from my tenth Vipassana retreat. It has been a decade since I have begun to live this examined life and as I now prepare to enter into the next decade living as such, the image of this year represents a pregnant symbol of that transition. As the name I have chosen to give this year suggests, the image I am referring to is that of the full solar eclipse that I had the good fortune of seeing in person this year, accompanied by my dear friends Nicco and Amy.
Before I get to the discussion of the eclipse, let me briefly summarize the main occurrences of the year. The beginning of this year was spent in preparation for the relocation to Redmond which constitutes the predominant event that has shaped all the contours of this year’s phenomenology and emotional content. Before making the move I drove up to the Vipassana center in North Fork with the intention to sit my tenth course, but was disappointed when I was asked to serve instead. However, given that I had yet to serve a full 10-day course despite my having been participating in these courses for nearly ten years, I easily acquiesced. And in actual fact, this experience proved to be a very powerful one and helped me to integrate Dhamma into my daily life a lot more than I had before. Even though I was not able to purify as much of the mind as I would have normally done on a course, I nevertheless was able to maintain a daily meditation practice for quite sometime as a result of the Dhamma service that I gave, and found manifestations of equanimity in daily life at surprising times. In addition to that, I met some of the nicest and most interesting characters and bonded with them on a very deep level, having worked so hard and for so long together on a purely voluntary basis, and purely for the benefit of the students. It reminded me of the importance of caring for others and giving service to society, and also of harmonious ways to work together with other members of the community.
Upon my return from that service, I packed up everything and embarked upon this journey which has proven so momentous and brought about so much upheaval. I uprooted my entire life, disconnected myself from the social fabric that had begun to weave itself around me, and perhaps most significantly left my dear Dorrie behind in my beloved Los Angeles. I am no stranger to making sudden and dramatic moves like this – indeed my life is punctuated by a tapestry of such departures and I have grown accustomed to them. But I find that the older I get the harder it becomes as the mind begins to fear social isolation in later life and the lack of roots grown with old friends in hometowns. In any case, it always takes at least a year or so for the transitions to start to feel alright, but seeing as I’m still in the thick of it, this year has had a character of darkness, in more than one way, as a result of it.
Let’s discuss some of the ways in which darkness has been a constant companion. First and foremost, the growing distance between myself and Dorrie eventually made our breakup a de facto reality, with starts and stops, until all was lost. Having shared some of the greatest moments of my life with Dorrie and stayed together for the longest duration of any relationship I’ve had, it’s understandable that this was probably the hardest breakup I’ve had to endure, coloring my year a shadowy hue. The Vipassana retreat allowed me the time and contemplation needed to gain closure and finally allowed my heart to let her go, bidding her a silent metta-kiss from afar, and making peace with flowing separate rivers far apart.
Aside from that, there is the obvious weather difference which has also at first weighed heavily upon my heart, accustomed as it has grown to the ever-present sunny shores of Southern California. The constant in the meteorological formula here is not sun, but rather lack of it – much to my chagrin, and depleting pigments and vitamins from my skin. Another not insignificant contributor to the overall gloomy attitude is the catastrophic political landscape we now find ourselves living in. Presided upon by an animal with less brain matter than an average dog, with Congress passing laws purchased by the highest bidders, the death of net neutrality, the escalation with North Korea and Iran and threat of nuclear armageddon, the diminishing of America’s stature and moral authority in the world – all of these dealt a heavy blow to the idealist in me that would have traded anything to see Bernie Sanders in office instead.
A note about metta: I had a particularly powerful metta experience on the Vipassana course I just returned from. The course was characterized by storms of snow and rain and wind and thunder throughout the first 9 days. Miraculously on the tenth day just as we were being brought back up to reality, the storms suddenly cleared and sun came back out in reflection of the blossoming smiles that bloomed so beautifully on the faces of the meditators that had been through a grueling course. Even more miraculous was the magnificent rainbow that the sun cast over the center touching the ground at both ends and reminding us that all is not yet lost, that there is still beauty in the world, and that love transcends all the miseries that are shown to be minute by comparison. To me this was a reminder of my oft-repeated favorite phrase of mine: Remember Love. So inspiring was this experience that I realized that this was the third tattoo that I was meant to emplace onto my body in order to remind me not to forget to share my merits by practicing metta meditation after every sit.
And now we come to the discussion of the image that must be given to this year, namely the solar eclipse that was witnessed by our altered consciousness in Independence, Oregon in August of this year, and met with howls of madness and mystery. This experience that Nicco Amy and I embarked upon was a highly symbolic moment for the year of 2017. There are two aspects to the eclipse that are imbued with meaning and resonated across the happenings of the year. First, the dimming of the light of the sun and the consequent moment of darkness that transpires in the middle of what would otherwise be a bright and sunny day. Second, the way it appeared to cause the moon and the sun to both melt away and disappear completely into the sky behind them, leaving only the faint ring of the sun’s corona behind. From the first image, we have already seen that this year has contained a fair amount of darkness, though sudden and transitory. From the second image, we get an even more potent notion of the emptiness that also permeated the overarching feeling of the year. What I mean by emptiness is both on an emotional level, and also a more philosophical level as in the Buddhist understanding of the term. In that tradition, the term emptiness is meant to be an objective counterpart to the principle of anatta, or no-self. In both cases, the thrust of the idea is the illusory nature of the images that we create, about either objects in the world or ourselves.
As regards this deeper understanding of the image that the eclipse casts, my growing accretion of ego as a result of the new job and financial health shed light on the symbol – pun very much intended. This growing ego has contributed significantly to my gloomy feeling throughout this year, and this was made clearer after watching the eclipse, but even more so after returning from the course where I have just spent the past 10 days cleansing my mind of as much of that accretion as I could. In the case of the eclipse, the disappearance of the sun and the way it seemed to get hollowed out put me into a temporary state of ego death, or at least symbolically conveyed that to me from the universe, as the sun was shown to be without substance or a full form, but was only the faintest husk without essence. It was such a stark and powerful transmission of meaning from the cosmos into my brain that shocked and stunned me to my (nonexistent) core. It made me immediately look inward, and found the reflection revealed in my own essenceless-ness and total lack of an internal hard core, running completely counter to the images of my self that had begun to develop and get built up as a result of the environment that I was now working in.
Despite all that I have said about the darkness that pervaded this year, this year also contained – as all of them do – moments of elation and happiness. In particular, the wedding of my brother Sammi and Karen was one of the more beautiful experiences of my life. It was situated in a a beautiful British countryside chapel dating back a thousand years and was attended by some of the loveliest humans I have ever had the good fortune to be amidst. It was my great honor to be Sammi’s best man and to give a speech at that glorious and emotional event. Everyone was so happy and celebratory and it afforded my heart a much needed salve to sooth the ailments of the other aspects of the year. Additionally, Amani’s graduation was another momentous event in our family’s life that brought about feelings of warmth and happiness and fulfillment. Her journey has been a particularly tumultuous one, and having achieved what she has by graduating magna cum laude has made all of us incredibly proud of her.
On the significance of this being the tenth year of my examined life: The impetus for the start of the whole process of growth and development that began in 2007 was the fallout I was dealing with from having recently moved to London, and then subsequently the breakup of my first serious relationship with my senior sweetheart, Carol. It is quite interesting to see the cycles that time wheels us through. It may be that a decade represents a swing back and forth of the arm of a pendulum, and that we have now returned to a similar moment, dealing with drastic change and promoting new growth as part of the healing process.
Over the course of this past decade, I have grown in innumerable ways and it has been a wonderful and fascinating journey, both to live and to observe. Spiritually, I have gotten established in the technique of Vipassana and developed it up to, but not quite reaching, the level of having a daily practice. But its effects in my life have been unmistakable. Professionally, I have grown tremendously and become a productive member of society. I am maturing and developing in so many ways, and it is truly awe-inspiring to contemplate time and its cycles that trend upwards despite cycling back. I am so excited to see where this journey will continue to lead me, should I be fortunate enough to continue living it. This coming year will be my 30th, heralding the decade that many say is the happiest. Perhaps this will be the first year that I am finally able to maintain my practice, moving me into the next stage of my spiritual path. And perhaps also, I will finally find someone that will able to walk alongside me on the remaining parts of my journey, who will grow with me in a dynamic that is founded on mutual respect and metta. What I know for sure is that I am now moving into another phase of self-reliance and self-development in a mostly hermit state, as I did at the beginning of the last decade. I will need to develop myself much further before I am ready to start growing roots again.
In any case, this year we eclipsed, the moon and sun kissed for a moment, then bid each other a sweet farewell. We endured the darkness of that encounter and the bizarre feeling of being hollowed out. And while much is cloudy and dark, there is still much light in the world, and hope does indeed spring everlastingly. The spring of metta that burst forth out of the layers of thick rocky sankharas during this Vipassana course convinced me of that. May all beings be happy!