Infinite Revisions and the Pursuit of a Life More Ordinary
Two months after my father died of an aortic dissection, my guru asked me to write a book about death and dying. I soon compiled hundreds of pages of notes—Moleskins filled with my bulky childlike scribble, hard drives crammed with 17th century Bengali verbiage, underlined passages cluttering my desk (from Kubler-Ross to Tibetan death meditations). I spent hours sitting at the feet of my guru going over my copious compilation of neti-neti infused deconstructionism, syncretist associations and careful textual research. I dedicated chapters to the history of Jewish eschatology, the genealogy of blood sacrifice, medieval concerns over amputation and dismemberment, and morbid artifacts of saintly flesh (viz. Jesus’ foreskin). I began to knit these threads of socio-cultural study into a compelling narrative of our inherent fear of death and the unknown. I undermined the dream of resurrection by pointing out its patent materialism and over-identification with the corporeal. Chapter one of the book (at least in one of its many incarnations) was titled “The Denial of Death,” which painstakingly unpacked our cultural repression of ‘mortal consciousness.’ The book (poorly titled the “Art of Dying”) was going to be an epic tome of philosophy, inter-cultural study and self-help.
Then something odd and unexpected happened: I couldn’t stop writing. At the close of four years of research I had five distinct drafts of the book, all of which were written in different narrative voices. One thread acted as a meditational guide to overcoming death-denial and the recovery of your ‘true face,’ meticulously drawn from Indo-Tibetan, Vedantic and Zen sources. (In retrospect, I am confounded as to how I tied these disparate threads together.) Another was a kind of comparative mythology survey of afterlife narratives, ranging from Yoruba and Edo cultures, to Nordic, to Polynesian. If I stacked the five distinct versions—in manuscript form—together, they would have amounted to over 1,000 single spaced pages (plus nearly a hundred pages of appended notes). For the DFWs of the world, this is not a significant feat. For me, a writer who detests the revisions process, this was monumentally uncharacteristic.
The one common theme (besides death and transcendence)—connecting these versions—was oddly interlaced, almost poetic, reveries about my father. Every chapter began with an italicized anecdote relating some lesson he taught me. It was a grief diary. I read portions of these eulogies, in a kind of elegiac trance, at the anniversary ‘celebrations’ of his death each of the four years that I was drafting the book. They were riffs on sixteenth century Bengali cries of grief and transcendent longing—ecstatic poetry about missing a phantom friend.
One day, nearly four years into the drafting process, I printed out the 1,100 pages of my book. I spent weeks reading—highlighting and underlining—my manuscript(s). And I began to realize they were so many words against myself. In a kind of Kierkegaardian fashion (if I can make that comparison without sounding too arrogant), I was having a crisis of faith on the page. All this verbiage was an attempt to make a case against my inherent disbelief. My own doubt was on trial, and I was launching every carefully constructed argument I owned in my considerable arsenal (having inherited my father’s extensive library and the education he and my mother had given me) to attack the fulminating grief inside me. Yet erupting through the cracks of my Hindu-Stoicism were these interludes of raw inconsolable emotion, preceding each chapter of the five books that made up the “Art of Dying.” Ironically, these mournful elegies undermined the central thesis of my self-directed attack—no matter how much I practiced yogic detachment (“The wise grieve not the living nor the dead,” Bhagavad Gita 2.11) my torment did not go away, no matter how much I deconstructed (neti-neti) the ‘illusion’ produced by my identification with the impermanent I could not rid myself of my humanity.
To mark the chapters in the AOD manuscript(s) I had a color-coded system: each elegiac anecdote about my father was printed on blue paper, the rest on white eggshell. As I read through the nearly endless tirades against familial attachment, each blue page struck me dumb. Simple grief-laden prose, devoid of philosophy, was a more compelling argument than hundreds of pages of carefully reasoned theological chessmanship.
The more verbose portion of this disjointed dialogue spun intricate intersecting lines of false reasoning in support of a central thesis: the fear of death (and therefore the pain of life) was a product of our misidentification with the body and all of its attendant body-connections (mother, father, sister, brother). After all my research, the body was being rejected as the fundamental obstacle to our ultimate and final transcendence over death. I knew better. I knew that what mattered was that my dad was once alive, and he was my friend. Now he was gone, irretrievable, and one day, very soon, I was going to die. In the end, the sickening delusion was not my identification with an impermanent self it was, in fact, the fantasy of an immortal soul.
The book was unfinishable. If I was going to continue in the same manner, my doubt would never end, and therefore neither would the AOD. I slowly began to realize, as I wielded my editor’s highlighting pen, that I could very well bury myself in volumes of alternate versions of the same flimsy argument.
“I know a way out of grief: die to your idea of who you are.”
Grief never ends. You learn to tend to it, to have a relationship of increasing complexity and depth with it. But you never transcend it—and if you do, then you’ve simply fractured and severed yourself from a significant portion of what it means to be human. The ultimate demise of the AOD had less to do with my personal grief over a dead father and more to do with my body-connections that were still alive. I grew sick with spinning theological nonsense in the effort to disintegrate our (my sister’s, my brother’s, my mother’s) mourning.
The AOD began to represent my utter failure to attend to the pain of my body-connections. The denial of grief’s validity was representative of the futility of my Vedantic quest to void the significance (and reality) of my humanity. The body-negative, ironically, was the ultimate denial of death and so, ipso facto, I was a fraud. I was a fraud on the page. I was a fraud as I instructed my students in grief denying meditations. I was a fraud as consoler and counselor to my body-connections. Because (at the risk of over-stating the obvious) I was and am a body.
“Where have you hidden yourself / and abandoned me in my groaning”
A friend of mine was driving one day. His mother, his brother and his childhood best friend were passengers. They got into an accident on the road—he was the sole survivor. Once he recovered from his injuries, he started building fences around his property. Over the course of a decade he had built a dozen picket fences between his home and the outside world. His portion of welcome on this earth had become smaller and smaller.
In my own way, I too had been retreating—into meditation, into theology (1,100 pages worth). And from inside my small (well-fenced) kingdom these blue pages of grief were calling to me, asking me to come out into a world I had rejected. After a few weeks of careful line edits, I put aside the AOD (and my highlighting pen), for the time being, unsure as to what was to become of the book and myself.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
A few months later, I met a woman and I felt my body below the waist for the first time in a decade. I gave voice to my doubt in the community I had been raised in (and had been teaching in for years) and for the first time, since I was a kid, I didn’t feel like a fraud. Affirming the body resulted in the loss of my station in life (my position as a teacher) and the community that had fostered me into adulthood. But I gained a possibility—a life that was authentic for me. Previously, my math had been regressive, subtracting entire portions of my humanity—the true self was not my genitals (therefore I had no need for them), my true self was not the feeling of affinity I had for other people (as it was impermanent), my true self was not this body (and therefore I had no need for this life). The possibility I was entertaining was about reclamation, restoring these discarded portions back to life. It was (metaphorically) about resurrecting the body.
After voicing my doubt to a committee of violent opposition, I realized that there was no place for me in the community I had been raised in, no place for the discarded portions of my humanity. I made my escape during a time of day that no one else was home. Carrying my few possessions out to the car—mostly books—I abandoned the AOD in a cardboard box. The hard drive, containing the drafts, went to a charity providing computers for inner city kids. The printed pages, in said box, were disposed of in a blue recycling bin. I have not seen or heard of the book since.
“athato brahma jijnasa: Now seek Brahman”
A guru in Rishikesh, nearly a year after I left my life as a monk, asked me if I was prepared for death. “No. For the first time, I want to live.” Squatting beneath a banyan tree overlooking the Ganges he pressed further: “You have a human birth. You must seek the absolute truth.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was seeking a life more ordinary. A life where children and mothers and siblings constitute the meaning of human existence.
Six months after conversing with this riverbank yogin I fought for the freedom of my younger brother and sister. Both of them made it out of our native community and, one by one, came to California to live near me. It wasn’t easy. There was nearly endless bargaining. Threats on my life were made. But, slowly, over the years my former gurus (and community) began to let us go.
Just the other morning I had coffee with my sister. There was no conversation about enlightenment or gurus, no deconstruction of Vedantic idealism (let alone scriptural injunctions to realize ancient truths), no discussion that would indicate we were survivors of our own personal nightmare. We talked about her two English bulldogs (one of them a puppy) for an hour. And I realized that she had done more than just make it out alive, she had made a life worth living.