Reflections on 2016: Year of Sisyphean Bloom

The year of two thousand and sixteen will be remembered by many as a regrettable year of many tragedies and one of which they will have been collectively happy to be rid of. However, the wise do not fixate on a single shade, but rather broaden their view and weave the totality of tapestry from the various strands of color that a finite passage through life experience provides. Thus, I am here again, habituated as I have come to be to sift through the broken shards of stained glass that I can hazard to collect from the dim recesses of my memory, in the hopes of being able to rearrange them into a picture with some semblance of sense to it. As we shall see, the underlying theme for this year was indeed foreshadowed by just such a rearrangement of puzzle pieces.

First Blossom: As a plant system grows, it transitions from the stage of need through to the stage of giving in gradual steps. It starts life as a mere sapling desperately sucking at the earthly breast for its nourishment and continues to do so even as it opens its chloroplastic eyes to the enlightening sun. As its stem begins the process of hardening so that it may adopt its upright stature, the collected energy begins the transformational step that produces those darling first buds of May. Out of these fledgling protuberances emerges that first triumphant blossom, displaying itself to the world and proclaiming its existence with the ardor of youth. It is in this stage that I now find myself. As the events of the year are spun together narratively, the common theme that underlies it is of the flowering phase of life. As the plant matures further, it will eventually yield a fruit that ripens and provides shade and clean air, thereby becoming a great giver.

There are multifarious avenues by which this flowering occurred, which I will summarize in brief. They encompass both the professional and the symbolic. As regards the former, this year provided the long-awaited milestone of the completion of my PhD. Though this arrived very near the end of the year, it lifted me up to a new level of status within society. The seeking out of job options and the resultant four month summer internship are more such signs of this transformative stage after much of the initial growth and development. Having been in the educational system for the entirety of my twenty eight years, without interruption, is analogous to the plant system that spends a great deal of time initially extracting resources from the world and building itself up therefrom. At this point, I have built myself up from the ground up, and can now begin the process of displaying my colored petals, in order to attract the forces of nature to this consolidated system of entropic ascent. I will come back to the theme of entropy later, as it has also played a large part in my intellectual development during this fateful year.

But, as regards the professional flowering just discussed, there has occurred inside me a definitive change of attitude that was occasioned by my becoming ready to join the workforce, as well as a realization of some hard-to-swallow bitter truths regarding survival and livelihood. In particular, I was faced with a choice regarding whether to pursue the opportunities that presented themselves in the private sector or those at universities. Over the course of the year, my decision wavered between these two options often. In the past, I had always felt repelled from industry work because of what I perceived to be the corrupting influence of money. In my naïvety, I wished to be a scrupulous adherent of Right Livelihood. Therefore, at the beginning of the year I commenced my job search and mainly focussed the initial tranche of emails towards university postdoctoral research positions. I interviewed at a few different options and had generally positive experiences, but I always had the perception that the pay and conditions of employment that were offered were less than my requirements for financial health. In addition, I realized that postdocs at universities are not free from that influence I so detested, given the constant need to apply for grants and receive the funding that facilitates their research. At the risk of connoting entitlement or greed, my reasoning was as follows: having spent my entire life in education, and therefore in financial dependence on my father, I felt compelled to make up for lost time. In particular, I had my future and other such long-term financial planning concerns to consider, which were all the more pressing due to my late entry into the workforce, as well as the anti-socialist trajectory that the US currently seems unfortunately to be traversing.

It was in this frame of mind that I agreed to do an internship with Oculus Research during the summer, right on the cusp of my planned defense of my dissertation. I was very much impressed by the quality of the research that I witnessed being conducted there, as well as the depths of the pockets of the institution’s funders. It didn’t take long for me to realize the superiority of this form of research. It was this which engendered in me finally and totally the decision to leave academia, and to pursue industry backed research. As such, this also represents the first time that I consciously allowed myself to be selfish. Whereas in previous times, I had been rather fanatical in my attempts to suppress these tendencies that have always been innate within me, through often extreme measures – this year allowed me to find a middle ground. This also emanates out of my broader relationship with meditation and self-improvement that I had undertaken a few years ago, which I will say a little bit more about below.

Symbolically, there were a few key events involving flowers that also serve to amplify the power of this theme. First was the actual budding and then flowering of the Cereus cactus that I had been nursing for about six months prior. I was not expecting the event, nor did I realize that the cactus was even in good health. Suddenly, on the last day of May, the slender tongue of the cactus erupted in a short lived bloom of exuberance. I was reminded of that wonderful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson – “earth laughs in flowers” – as the suddenness and unexpectedness of the event were not without the tinge of irony. This is especially the case given the fact that I had almost killed the poor thing earlier through overwatering, and was keenly aware of the rot growing on its roots. Nevertheless, its youthful vigor and earnest desire could not be quelled by my ineptitude, and burst forth ever so jubilantly in spite of it.

Another notable and symbolic happening was the completion, equally unexpected and magnificent, of the 1500 piece puzzle of Dali’s painting of a meditative rose that Dorrie and I bought the previous summer in Paris and had been working on ever since. I say it was an unlikely occurrence because of the manner in which we had been working on it, leaving it in such a state of disorganization with stray pieces littering the small table that could barely contain the considerable size of the puzzle. I had at many times over the nine month process felt certain that we had lost at least a few pieces. But surprisingly, when it came down to the last one, we found that we had somehow preserved them all, and managed to reverse their entropic tendencies, of course while radiating more heat to increase the surrounding entropies in the process. This experience exemplified to me the types of cultivation that satisfy me most – namely, long and arduous journeys that take much effort and patience, and whose product is worthy of the cost.

While I’m on the topic of entropy, I’d like to say a few words, as this was a recurring theme in my mind throughout this year. The continuous process of dispersal that is at all times operating in the universe has always fascinated me, especially in the way in which it stands at odds with the great human project of ever increasing order and integration. It was late during the year that I came to realize that our increasing complexity is not at all at odds with the inescapably ascendant disorder that is enshrined in the second law of thermodynamics. On the contrary, all of life integrates only to be more fully in the service of the conversion of the energy of visible sunlight into its less useful infrared form, and thereby increasing its entropy. Nevertheless, the universality of that law, and the sense of futility that knowledge of its ultimate consequence evokes, crystalized into a sort of Sisyphean resignation, feeling myself to be exerting myself in the service of a law of nature whose ultimate end goal is the complete destruction of all organized matter. Yes, despite the futility, there is still a way in which to relish this brief moment of unfathomable fractal-like complexity.

This discussion of entropy calls to mind the old legend of Sisyphus, which is the explanation for the name I have given to this year. The image of his heart-wrenchingly futile efforts to push the boulder up that hill only to be met with the necessity to restart his incessant striving came to me after a particularly powerful group meditation. In that particular story, he was punished by Zeus for daring to conceive of himself as cleverer and more powerful than the gods on Mount Olympus. In this, there is a natural parallel, I believe not unintended, to the lot of the human animal. In a sense, our ceaseless strivings and struggles, our stresses and our successes, are ultimately for nought, as the steady passage of time will burn their records in the eventuality, with the final conclusion being the heat death of the universe. If we take that grander view of the state of affairs of our kind, and indeed any sentient beings in the universe, we will have no choice but to admit in the end that we are striving towards no permanent goal. This at last, brings me to the connection that all of this has with my spiritual life. I was visited by this potent image during a meditation as yet another way to understand the universal law that the Buddha tried so valiantly to instill in his pupils, namely the law of impermanence. It is said that the understanding of this law is the key to the enlightenment that eradicates all forms of suffering for sentient beings. If Sisyphus were to recognize the futility of his job, he would overcome the agony that he would otherwise be sure to feel upon being frustrated again and again at its lack of a permanent conclusion. He will recognize his vanity in having expected otherwise, at believing himself to be like the gods, immortal, and unscathed by the laws of the universe over which they lorded. For all of us mere mortals, we will have an opportunity to flower but only for our brief moment upon this stage, only to be recycled back into the grand scheme of entropic ascension. In releasing us from our desire for permanence, we can rejoice in this flowering, made all the more beautiful for its transience.

I have to say a few words in honor of my grandmother’s soul that was released from its vessel earlier this year. As yet another symbol of impermanence and entropy, the event helped to shape my thoughts and figured greatly in my reckonings. She will be sorely missed and I think of her and my grandfather constantly and remember their unshakeable presence and time-tested love. Many others also died this year, and all in all it will be remembered as a dark time as a result. But death need not always be cause for sadness. In this case, my grandmother was suffering greatly in her final few years, and in a sense, her death afforded a kind of existential relief. In general, death is just the other side of birth, and all phenomena that undergo a birth are fated to undergo a corresponding death, including the universe as a whole. I am blessed to have had the experiences that I shared with you, Tetta, and may your soul rest in a figuratively eternal peace!

In connection with these metaphysical meanderings, I would like to also mention the Vipassana retreat that Dorrie and I straddled the previous transition to a new year with. Having shared that experience provided an incomparable strengthening of our bond, on a very deep level. We ventured forth together and dipped our feet into the ocean of existence and paddled along our shared trajectory in search of the other shore. This common struggle brought our spirits together in a way no mere mundane experience could have done. With regards to meditation, I have not been able to maintain the two-hours daily quota that my teacher recommends. But, as I alluded to earlier, this did not trouble me as in previous years. As I mentioned, I have lately been experiencing my spiritual path in what I like to call an “organic” manner. In other words, I do not try to force anything but rather let the practice deepen in due course. I was surprised to learn that it does in fact take on a life of its own and does not need to be forced upon myself in the manner of the overly disciplinarian teachers. This, of course, does not mean that I can let myself go and just ignore the path altogether, but it does mean being realistic and flexible and giving it space and time to grow. One development that resulted from this in 2016 was the maintenance of the one hour group meditation for the majority of the year, something I had not been able to do in previous years. While this required some gentle nudging, it also came about quite naturally and was a welcome and very helpful habit to have kept.

I have to mention also in passing the regrettable outcome of the US presidential election and how it relates to the themes of the year. Bernie Sanders lost the battle for the Democratic party’s nomination, by a hair, to his opponent Hillary Clinton. This turned out to be an extremely tragic event as it all but handed the ultimate victory to the man that we must now refer to as president Donald Trump. Although Bernie lost the election, what he accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. Having had neither name recognition nor corporate donors, and the way in which he was marginalized by the media, yet still went on to win 22 states and 47% of the vote in the primaries is akin to the way in which a flowering cactus can take root in the inhospitable and arid desert terrain, and overcome all odds to produce the miracle of sublime beauty that is the desert flower. In inspiring the youth – indeed, he won overwhelmingly in the 18-35 age bracket – he displayed the most brilliant colors and sent the message that those fastidious pollinators were looking for. Now it is just a matter of time, before the message will ripen and bear fruit, and yield a sweet outcome and also a powerful new seed to be deposited in the soil of our inheritance.

All in all, this has been a fateful year indeed. In my reflections at the end of last year, I wrote that I was feeling myself headed towards a year of destiny. And in fact, it has proven itself to have been a poignant moment of transition, replete with memories to cherish, tragedies to mourn, and decisions of consequence. I have called this year my year of Sisyphean Bloom to commemorate the growing recognition of futility in all that we do, as well the short-lived beauty of the middle phase of life, midway between germination and fruiting. It represents a quantum leap, a spectacular transformation from the green plant into the explosion of color and fragrance whose purpose is to produce a display for all beings with eyes and smelling organs. Thus, I have emerged from my cocoon of education and am ready to start demonstrating the accumulate of what I have gathered in order to attract the forces of nature, and thus to propagate the life process that is operational within me. For the future, I consign myself to the continuation of that life process, and the increase of entropy that it entails, towards greater and greater stages of integration and maturity, until I have many more gifts to give to the world that fashioned me. May all beings be happy!

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