Friday, April 10, 2020

Living With Limits: Dancing With Rita Hayworth

Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs . . . Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. (J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World, 1962, p. 41)
The recent passing of my friend, the writer, broadcaster and co-founder of Critics At Large Kevin Courrier, prompted me to engage in some spontaneous and unexpected speculations about mortality and the finite nature of our charming little sojourns here on this odd earth.

Westerners who live in either Europe or North America don’t really like to talk about death, or even to think about it if possible. It’s a foreboding subject that fills us with fear and dread, probably as a result of our trained expectation of punishment for sins of one kind or another, of retribution in hell rather than a blissed-out vacation in Shangri-La heaven. This is unlike Easterners from any numbers of places, such as India, Japan or Tibet, let’s say, who don’t follow the same template of a deity, or a messiah, or some supernatural figure sitting on a throne in space who resembles Charlton Heston handing out post-mortem candies.

Although I’m a westerner, born in Toronto and living now in Vancouver, I’m also a Buddhist and have been for about forty years, both of the Zen and the Tibetan kind, so thoughts of the primacy of impermanence are always uppermost in my mind. This comes with the natural result that I think about death, if not every twenty minutes, then at least every night while drifting off to sleep and starting to dream, which feels to me much the same as dying and discovering that everything exists only in our Mind. Such might also be the case in either the dreaming or the waking state, in fact.

Kevin’s passing got me thinking about what it means to leave this place, to contemplate other potential places (if only in our minds) and especially to try to speculate on the in-between, the transitional, the liminal, the threshold zone separating one life from the next, or from whatever emerges on the other side of this one. Or even what separates one mood or state of mind from another one that replaces it, in a different sort of interval or gap.

Passed away... that, of course, is a euphemism we all often use instead of saying someone died, that they were buried or burnt and leave only an aching absence in our lives where they used to be standing. But whatever we call the process of dying, it remains the only thing of which we can be certain in this life of ours: the fact that it eventually ends. Everything else is sheer conjecture, though it can be a splendid way to spend some time while waiting to pass away. Many works of art, and naturally all works of philosophy and theology, are focused on this realm of mortality, and, one way or another, on the potentials for some form of immortality.

Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street (Het Straatje) (c. 1658).

As a writer and culture critic, my role is to explicate both works of art and the cultures which create them, not from the usual judgmental point of view that assesses success or failure from the relative angle of aesthetics but from the phenomenological vantage point of encountering those works of art as what they actually are: embodied meanings. I often interpret whole cultures, and even whole civilizations, as if they were individual works of art, mostly because at some level that is precisely what they are.

Such a comparative approach allows us to utterly preclude issues such as liking or disliking the relative features of works of art in any medium, or using our limited time and energy to declare the success or failure of their maker’s intentions. Works of art, whether they are visual, architectural, literary, musical, or durational, are all dark mirrors of the consciousness that created them. Like us, they succeed solely because they exist. In fact, they succeed more effectively than us, since eventually we don’t exist and they do.

We are therefore free to more fully experience the degree to which drastically different kinds of art objects, of embodied meanings, are really the immediate sense data reflections of the consciousness of the particular cultural context within which they were created. As such, none are superior or inferior in kind, apart from the accumulated aesthetic, psychic and spiritual assumptions of their culture on what constitutes beauty or charm.

It suddenly becomes possible to understand the deeper strata levels at which a classically representational Vermeer painting is totally equivalent to an apparently randomly abstract Pollock painting, as well as the degree to which both utterly succeed in conveying the key elements of the space (and the time) in which they were produced. They are emblems of an enigma: their maker’s consciousness and how they lived within the limits of that consciousness. Viewed correctly, they are identical reflections of that consciousness.

While considering the fragile nature of our awareness, so subtle that it can contain and comprehend two distinctly different visions of materiality, the question arises: is there a continuum of some sort to our consciousness which prevails or carries on during or even after our death? Such was my pondering after the long anticipated (he was ill) yet still abrupt (he still vanished) departure of my late friend Kevin, with whom I used to regularly share speculations on art, poetry, philosophy and music.

Jackson Pollock, Mural (1943).

The symbolic forms we all utilize in order to communicate our musings to each other are multiple: that of language, which both the writer and reader are using now in a quantum-like manner of transmission and reception which utterly eliminates our separate locations; as well as of mathematics, the principal language with which the universe makes itself accessible to and discernible by us. In addition, we have at our disposal the symbolic forms of music, design, mythology, religion, philosophy and psychology, each of which is a distinct form-language with specific aims and accomplishments, apart from merely entertaining us on the path towards our eventual extinction.

Some of these forms and patterns might also provide some useful indications of what to expect and how to manage the ultimate transaction of dying and death, and what, if anything, awaits us after the removal of one mortal mask before placing another mask, whether immortal or merely a new mortal one, in its place. One longstanding science of spiritual (for lack of another word) instructions has been established in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, especially in the Bardo Thodol teachings about living, dreaming, dying and navigating these transitions nightly via something poetically they called dream yoga.

Among other things, in these musings I am interested in exploring the distinct possibility that far from being a science fiction writer, J. G. Ballard (a popular author of fiction born in Shanghai in 1930 and best known for his memoir Empire of the Sun) was, like William Golding or Philip K. Dick or even William Burroughs, actually more of a factual investigator of the human condition from a visionary perspective which was most efficiently armored in the stylistic conceits of a certain genre of fiction.

He was, however, primarily a metaphysician who searched through the motifs of human behaviour for a pattern that could potentially explain that behaviour: a conduct code, as we might call it. To entertain his notion that there is in fact an archaeopsychic realm at all is, of course, to also embrace the Jungian notion of a collectively shared zone out of which a myriad of archetypal images have emerged and will continue to emerge, as long as we sentient beings continue to utilize the delicate neurological operating system that has evolved over eons.

I have observed a couple of key distinctions between the supposedly nebulous realm of aesthetics and the supposedly concrete realm of science. Science, and especially the zones devoted to neurological speculations, appears to be devoted to reducing and eventually eliminating the unknown, to replacing the unknown with the known. Fair enough, up to a point. Art, on the other hand, appears to be devoted to increasing the amount of unknown in our world, expanding the unknown until there is perhaps nothing but the unknown, which would be synonymous with a state akin to perpetual wonderment, rapture, bliss or otherwise magical states of contentment and awe.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed that we can never actually experience our own death. So did Maurice Blanchot: “Death is the absolute future in which the absolute past approaches, but only approaches, for death is never present.” In other words, when “I” attempt to experience the impossible absence of “me.” We can only experience the absence of them, such as in the case of my recently departed friend.

 My favourite translation of this classic text is by Uma Thurman’s father.

Surely thinking about these ingredients of our experience, dying and death, in advance via some kind of contemplation, would be useful, by whatever means necessary, and in my particular case that includes some degree of Buddhist hermeneutics. Perhaps this is because such speculation is the primary and principal impetus of the Buddhist psychology examining the nature of consciousness, its potential meanings, implications and consequences. In other words, the most important factor in approaching questions about the nature of consciousness and death must also include outcomes that influence our behaviours and interactions with the other sentient beings around us in life, or else what is the point of such speculation in the first place?

So obviously the question we’re considering here is what happens when the human mask is removed? What if anything is underneath? And perhaps even more importantly, what difference does it make, apart from occupying our preciously short time on earth to the fullest extent? Therefore my first speculative answer, as an agent of affect who accepts and even embraces the unknown, uncertainty, obscurity and ambiguity, without feeling the need to replace them with their binary opposites, is Yes. Does consciousness end? Yes. Does consciousness continue? Yes. Doe consciousness awaken? Yes. Does consciousness transform? Yes. How could it be otherwise?

It, consciousness, perhaps does all these things at once, maybe at some quantum level. When the brain and the body die, not being separate entities, the entire world dies, not in the manner that solipsists might entertain (as delightful and unassailable as their position is) but to the degree that our largely illusory experience of having an inherent, separate and independent self or soul is really what dies. This is where the Buddhist psychology (preferable to the identifier “religion” since there is no deity to speak of in its tenets) comes into play for us.

This is where the potential for a concept of consciousness as a continuum that has always been here, a consciousness platform which in fact manufactures the apparently solid world around us as a stage for our performance, enters the picture. What if the entity we identify as a self never existed in the first place but was merely a projection on our experience of the sensory world as a collection of disconnected and disparate elements within which we are trapped and isolated? What if “it” doesn’t die so much as cease to have a format for application?

What if its existential job description is redundant? It drops away and reveals to us what we were too disconnected to see before, a sudden expanse in every direction of the luminosity of mind, not our mind per se, but the theatrical playground of the senses within which our mask was being worn? What if this sudden unmasking reveals us to be a succession of life forms parading across a stage, each one wearing a different mask (table, robin, shark, cloud, stone, water, cat, etc.) but each one being identically the same thing?

“The meaning of life is that it stops,” Kafka remarked to Max Brod one restless night. But this doesn’t mean, as many have wrongly supposed, that he felt life was pointless, irrelevant, or fated to conclude with failure (even though, often enough elsewhere, he was all too consumed with his own perceived personal flaws and failures). If we interpret this diary entry correctly, it simply states something as clearly as Wittgenstein himself may have put it.

Life is temporary; its chief and primal characteristic is that of impermanence. How do we intend to spend our limited time? The corollary of such an insight is even more instructive and moves us to the most obvious extension of this basic existential observation: if that is the meaning of life, its temporary condition, then what is the purpose if it?

The purpose of it, Kafka is suggesting by inference, is to make that obvious impermanence meaningful. Consciousness is perhaps even a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself  – a crude approximation of its own neurological processes. The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence  – a self inside the head. But maybe it’s all just data processing, which doesn’t die exactly so much as simply stop working.

My personal afterlife: Rita as Gilda.

Equally possible is the way in which the “self that isn’t there” can be explored and explained by certain Tibetan Buddhist yogis who compiled The Book of Liberation Through Understanding in the Between (i.e., Bardo Thodol). This remarkable book of contemplation is said to have semi-legendary origins that incorporate multiple mythologies and merge them with actualized practices. Its origins in both legend and mythology in no way devalue its deep input into questions of mortality and the fate of consciousness, since mythology – as Cassirer, Jung, Eliade, and others such as James Hillman, Henri Corbin and the popular Joseph Campbell have indicated – also contains a profound set of shared human projections, the archetypes of the collective unconscious, which recur regularly through every distinctly different culture and somehow unify them at the foundational level of being.

Before discounting the supposedly superstitious or supernatural aspects of these practices, designed to remove fear and liberate the dying, we would do well to remember that during these same historic periods in the West, we were still engaged in barbaric heresy wars, brutal crusades, insanely self torturing inquisitions and human burnings in an imaginary war against an evil invented by our monotheistic and anthropomorphic deity projections. By comparison to our own pathological history, this particular science of the spiritual passage out of one life and into another is quite gentle, kind, compassionate and visionary.

These meditative practices, which can also be engaged in on a nightly basis by us when we fall asleep, dream and wake up again, are also part of  a larger corpus called The Profound Teaching of the Natural Liberation Through Contemplating the Mild and Fierce Deities (Norbu). Such “deities,” by the way, are not thought to be real but are more the internal projections of our mind as it comes to terms with the experience of extinction, and also as it reflects the basic binary polarities inherent in the embodied condition. It involves realizing that everything we are experiencing (whether it is meeting the Virgin Mary, talking with Moses, or dancing with Rita Hayworth) is actually happening only in our mind(s).

By the way, I’m in no way denigrating the religions of the West, since I was raised a Catholic before stumbling into Buddhism; I’m only observing that they in no practical way prepare us to actually encounter and experience the death of our consciousness, whatever that might be. Also, I’m pretty secure in my belief that in the transitional stages between the end of one life and the beginning of another, I’ll most likely be dancing with Rita Hayworth.

Of that much I can be as reasonably certain as it is possible to be of a hologram. One can always dream. There is, of course, no east or west in dreams. Perhaps most rewarding in this yogic approach is the fact that this ongoing evolutionary process has no specific aim: it is not about evolving toward some fully perfected or angelic state. We are all already in this perfect state, all the time. We’re just too dumb to realize it. That’s where the assistance of a reality sherpa comes in handy.

The profound Dzogchen methods practiced by a psychic sherpa such as Chogyal Norbu also provide ample thought-provoking speculation based on the actualized practice of awareness continuity before, during and after death. The key to this is not the post-mortem experience, but the preparation in sentient realms we occupy on a daily basis. This ground awareness is accessible to everyone here and now, since that is the ground of being which emerges, or appears to emerge, during dreaming or dying but which is also present as the base from which the entire phenomenal world appears in the mirror-like radiance with which we're all familiar.

One of the best books by what Tibetans call a mindstream emanation, next to his pal and fellow existential comedian, the Dalai Lama, another well known emanation.

So I would suggest that consciousness doesn't do anything during death; it also doesn't quite transform either; it merely continues doing what it always does, which is to be misconstrued as a solid world of separate entities all competing for space and time locales. The ground nature of mind, however, does seem to be uncovered, which is why so many parallel experiences are reported at an archetypal level by diverse peoples with utterly divergent belief systems, which are then projected into or upon whatever cultural context they occupy.

One thing they all share, or so it seems to me, is the sudden realization that their entire life and experiences had been based on the incorrect assumption that they existed independently as a separate entity called a self. That entity appears to shimmer like a mirage and dissolve into the transitional state (so great yogi masters have reported) as it dawns briefly on the dying being that he or she is in actuality space (or light or energy) itself without differentiation.

Therefore death, in this contemplative context at least, is not a question of a tangible entity with a separate existence going anywhere or doing anything, since such an entity is the very illusory dynamic which death itself erases right before our eyes, and yet we seem to continue seeing. The dying being becomes aware (all too temporarily, in what many have described as the white light encounter) that all and everything had originated in a mind luminosity which is not separate at all from the dying being, and towards which no travel at all is possible since it's always been right in front of us, staring us in the face (not to mention, and per George Harrison, within and without you).

But we – failing to recognize our own true face or nature as precisely this essentially self-produced and maintained energy – were simply too deluded by apparent concrete forms to recognize it until it's too late to do so. A flash of light ensues, we react in habitual fear, and suddenly we materialize once again as a newborn baby – or, in some versions, we are drawn by visions of sexual desire back into some other incarnation. In any case, fear or desire, the re-embodying of awareness, is thought to be a real possibility, but a failure to awaken to the clear light of nirvana (reality).

In conclusion, I have no particular desire for resolution or answers. As suggested, I have a high comfort level for uncertainty and ambiguity and a low threshold for any finalities that accept or reject the conjectures of other theorists. Perhaps this is because I am not a theorist. Since none of us can ever be proven right or wrong in these matters, I tend to lean towards the attitudes of those guides who offer the most spacious, flexible, generous, open-minded and inclusive approaches. Any heavens or hells which arise in the midst of the post-death process of becoming are of our own making, but even so, they cannot either hurt or help us unless we find a way to fully recognize the clear light nature of this transparent mind as it diminishes and disappears.

The truth about our consciousness and its extinction is this, perhaps: what we and they are, mirror images of constant and perpetual flux. Flux is all there ever was and all there ever will be. Far from being merely a science-fiction concept, there really is a phenomenon we could call the archaeopsychic and it’s staring us in the face every single day. Our brains and bodies are flotsam and jetsam floating down the bloodstream of its archaic memory, itself consisting of a fluidly formless form.

If, that is, we do not shy away in fear from the simple fact of impermanence and thus manufacture more unnecessary suffering for ourselves (or the apparent others around us) than we deserve as custodians of “the great sea of its total memory” (Ballard, The Drowned World).

And just for the record, I still plan to dance happily with Rita Hayworth in the “afterlife.” But I also plan to bring along a consciousness counselor to help guide me through the emotional rapids. Even though I know that the self who is dying is also merely a mask worn by everything else that is not me, because I am still just as prone to the potential for forgetfulness shared by all the other suffering sentient beings surrounding me, I still plan to avail myself of the professional consulting services of what I have referred to as a reality sherpa.

Why? Because that person, presumably a skilled practitioner who will be reading from the pages of an ancient book devoted to the passage between one life and the next, will be re-unminding me: your lovely Rita is not real, you are only dancing with the light itself. Enjoy the trip, this guide might tell me: you are the continuum. And as for my friend Kevin, wherever he is now, I hope they have good music there.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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